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There was only one offence which Paley thought the English law punished too severely, and that was the offence of privately stealing from the person. In all other cases he defended the application of the capital penalty. It was, he thought, the peculiar merit of the English law that it swept into the net every crime which under any possible circumstance might merit death, whilst it only singled out a few[56] cases in each class of crime for actual punishment; so that whilst few really suffered death, the dread and danger of it hung over the crimes of many. The law was not cruel, for it was never meant to be indiscriminately executed, but left a large margin for the exercise of mercy. [153]

The second consequence is, that the sovereign, who represents society itself, can only form general laws, obligatory on all; he cannot judge whether[125] any one in particular has broken the social compact, for in that case the nation would be divided into two parties, one represented by the sovereign, asserting the violation of such contract; the other by the accused, denying the same. Hence the necessity of a third person to judge of the fact; in other words, of a magistrate, whose decisions shall simply consist of affirmations or denials of particular facts, and shall also be subject to no appeal. Such fatal and legalised iniquities as have been referred to have been approved of by even the wisest men and practised by even the freest republics, owing to their having regarded society rather as an aggregate[236] of families than as one of individuals. Suppose there to be 100,000 individuals, or 20,000 families, of five persons each, including its representative head: if the association is constituted by families, it will consist of 20,000 men and 80,000 slaves; if it be an association of individuals, it will consist of 100,000 citizens, and not a single slave. In the first case there will be a republic, formed of 20,000 little sovereignties; in the second the republican spirit will breathe, not only in the market-places and meetings of the people, but also within the domestic walls, wherein lies so great a part of human happiness or misery. In the first case, also, as laws and customs are the result of the habitual sentiments of the members of the republicthat is, of the heads of familiesthe monarchical spirit will gradually introduce itself, and its effects will only be checked by the conflicting interests of individuals, not by a feeling that breathes liberty and equality. Family spirit is a spirit of detail and confined to facts of trifling importance. But the spirit which regulates communities is master of general principles, overlooks the totality of facts, and combines them into kinds and classes, of importance to the welfare of the greater number. In the community of families sons remain in the power of the head of the family so long as he lives, and are obliged to look forward to his death for an existence dependent on the laws alone. Accustomed to submission and fear in the[237] freshest and most vigorous time of life, when their feelings are less modified by that timidity, arising from experience, which men call moderation, how shall they withstand those obstacles in the way of virtue which vice ever opposes, in that feeble and failing period of life when despair of living to see the fruit of their labours hinders them from making vigorous changes?

Beccaria would certainly have done better not to[23] have gone to Paris at all. His letters to his wife during his absence show that he was miserable all the time. In every letter he calculates the duration of time that will elapse before his return, and there is an even current of distress and affection running through all the descriptions of his journey. The assurance is frequent that but for making himself ridiculous he would return at once. From Lyons he writes that he is in a state of the deepest melancholy; that even the French theatre he had so much looked forward to fails to divert him; and he begs his wife to prepare people for his speedy return by telling them that the air of France has a bad effect on his health.

That these causes do to a great extent defeat the preventive effect of our penal laws, is proved by the tale of our criminal statistics, which reveal the fact that most of our crime is committed by those who[100] have once been punished, and that of general crime about 77 per cent. is committed with impunity. But if so large a proportion of crimes pass unpunished altogether, it is evident that society depends much less for its general security upon its punishments than is commonly supposed. Might it not, therefore, still further relax such punishments, which are really a severe tax on the great majority of honest people for the repression of the very small proportion who constitute the dishonest part of the community?[58]

Accordingly he made a rapid journey back, leaving his companion to visit England alone; this expedition to Paris being the only event that ever broke the even tenor of his life. His French friends rather deserted him, Morellet in his memoirs going even so far as to speak of him as half-mad. But it was to his[25] friendship with the Verris that this journey to Paris was most disastrous, and nothing is more mournful than the petty jealousies which henceforth completely estranged from him his early friends. The fault seems to have rested mainly with the two brothers, whose letters (only recently published) reveal an amount of bitterness against Beccaria for which it is difficult to find any justification, and which disposes for ever of all claims of their writers to any real nobleness of character.[9] They complain to one another of Beccarias Parisian airs, of his literary pride, of his want of gratitude; they rejoice to think that his reputation is on the wane; that his illustrious friends at Paris send him no copies of their books; that he gets no letters from Paris; nay, they even go so far as to welcome the adverse criticisms of his Dei Delitti, and to hope that his golden book is shut up for ever.[10] Alessandro writes to his brother that all his thoughts are turned to the means of mortifying Beccaria; and the revenge the brothers think most likely to humiliate him is for Alessandro to extend the limits of his travels, so as to compare favourably with Beccaria in the eyes of the Milanese. They delight in calling him a madman, an imbecile, a harlequin; they lend a ready ear to all that gossip says in his[26] discredit.[11] In the most trifling action Pietro sees an intended slight, and is especially sore where his literary ambition is touched.[12] It angers him that Beccaria should receive praise for the Apology written against Facchinei, the work having been entirely written by himself, with some help from his brother, but with not so much as a comma from the hand of Beccaria.[13] Some books which Beccaria had brought to him from Paris he imagined were really gifts to him from the authors; he believed that DAlembert had sent him his Mlanges of his own accord, not at the request of Beccaria, as the latter had represented; but even Alessandro admits that it was concerning the books, as Beccaria had said.[14] In short, the whole correspondence shows that Pietro Verri was extremely jealous of the success which he himself had helped his friend to attain, and that disappointed literary vanity was the real explanation of his suddenly transmuted affection.

One of the greatest preventives of crimes is, not the cruelty of the punishments attached to them, but their infallibility, and consequently that watchfulness on the part of the magistrates and that inexorable severity on the part of the judge which, to be a useful virtue, must coincide with a mild system of laws. The certainty of a punishment, moderate though it be, will ever make a stronger impression than the fear of another, more terrible, perhaps, but associated with the hope of impunity; for even the least evils when certain always terrify mens minds, and hope, that gift of heaven, which often makes up to us for everything, always throws into the distance the idea of greater evils, especially when its force is increased by impunity, which avarice and weakness so often grant.

It was by the advice of Scarlett, Lord Abinger, that he ventured to aim at the repeal of all statutes punishing mere theft with death; but, deeming it hopeless to urge their abolition all at once, he resolved to begin with that famous statute of Elizabeth which made it a capital crime to steal a handkerchief or anything else from the person of another which was of the value of a shilling. His bill to effect this[60] passed both Houses the same year it was introduced (1808), in spite of the strong opposition of the great legal dignitaries in either House. The statute was based, said Judge Burton, on the experience of two and a half centuries. The alternative punishment of transportation for seven years, said the Attorney-General, would be too short; it should be for more years than seven, if not for life. If any change of punishment were necessary, said Lord Ellenborough, it should be transportation for life.