It was at one time said that the work really was Pietro Verris and not Beccarias, for it was published anonymously, and away from Milan. The domestic circumstances of Pietro lent some countenance to this story, as did also the fact that he charged himself with the trouble of making a correct copy of the manuscript, so that a copy of the treatise does actually exist in Pietros handwriting. The story, however, has long since been disproved; yet to show the great interest which Pietro took in the work, and the[11] ready assistance he gave to his friend, a letter to him from Beccaria, with respect to the second edition, deserves mention, in which Beccaria begs him not only to revise the spelling correctly, but generally to erase, add, and correct, as he pleases. It would appear that he was already tired of literary success, for he tells his friend, that but for the motive of preserving his esteem and of affording fresh aliment to their friendship, he should from indolence prefer obscurity to glory itself.

It was this system that Beccarias little work[3] destroyed, and had that been its only result, it would still deserve to live in mens memories for its historical interest alone. For upon the legislation of that time, and especially upon that of Italy, this pamphlet on criminal law broke like a ray of sunlight on a dungeon floor, making even blacker that which was black before by the very brilliancy which it shed upon it. To Beccaria primarily, though not of course solely, belongs the glory of having expelled the use of torture from every legal tribunal throughout Christendom.


Moreover, if, as was said, our feelings are limited in quantity, the greater respect men may have for things outside the laws, the less will remain to them for the laws themselves. From this principle the wise administrator of the public happiness may draw some useful consequences, the exposition of which would lead me too far from my subject, which is to demonstrate the uselessness of making a prison of the State. A law with such an object is useless, because, unless inaccessible rocks or an unnavigable sea separate a country from all others, how will it be possible to close all the points of its circumference and keep guard over the guardians themselves? A man who transports everything he has with him, when he has done so cannot be punished. Such a crime once committed can no longer be punished, and to punish it beforehand would be to punish mens wills, not their actions, to exercise command over their intention, the freest part of human nature, and altogether independent of the control of human laws. The punishment of an absent man in the property he leaves behind him would ruin all international commerce,[225] to say nothing of the facility of collusion, which would be unavoidable, except by a tyrannical control of contracts. And his punishment on his return, as a criminal, would prevent the reparation of the evil done to society, by making all removals perpetual. The very prohibition to leave a country augments peoples desire to do so, and is a warning to foreigners not to enter it. That the scruple to convict diminishes the certainty of punishment, and therefore raises hopes of impunity, is illustrated by the case of two American brothers who, desirous to perpetrate a murder, waited till their victim had left their State, in which capital punishment had been abolished, and had betaken himself to a State which still retained it, before they ventured to execute their criminal intention. That such reluctance to convict is often most injurious to[42] the public is proved by the case of a woman at Chelmsford who some years ago was acquitted, in spite of strong evidence, on a charge of poisoning, and who, before her guilt was finally proved, lived to poison several other persons who would otherwise have escaped her arts.[27]

Penal laws are the expression of the moral sentiments of mankind, and either are as variable as the other. In Holland it was once a capital offence to kill a stork, and in England to cut down a mans cherry-tree. For a Roman lady to drink wine was as heinous a sin as adultery, for either of which she incurred the extreme sentence of the law. In Athens idleness was for a long time punishable; though to a Spartan an Athenian fined for idleness seemed to be punished for keeping up his dignity. In Mexico drunkenness was a graver crime than slander; for whilst the slanderer lost his ears or lips, the drunken man or woman was clubbed or stoned to death.

Yet, supposing it were proved to-morrow that punishment fails entirely of the ends imputed to it; that, for example, the greater number of crimes are[80] committed by criminals who have been punished already; that for one chance of a mans reformation during his punishment there are a hundred in favour of his deterioration; and that the deterrent influence of his punishment is altogether removed by his own descriptions of it; shall we suppose for a moment that society would cease to punish, on the ground that punishment attained none of its professed ends? Would it say to the horse-stealer, Keep your horse, for nothing we can do to you can make you any better, nor deter others from trying to get horses in the same way?

But it is probable that Beccaria owed his escape from persecution less to his apology than to the liberal protection of Count Firmian, who in his report of the affair to the Court of Vienna spoke of the Risposta as full of moderation and honourable to the character of its author. That the Count fully agreed with Beccarias opinions on torture is proved by a letter he wrote, in which he declares himself to have been much pleased with what Beccaria had said on the subject. His vanity, he said, had been flattered by it, for his own feelings about torture had always been the same. The book seemed to him written with much love of humanity and much imagination. Beccaria always acknowledged his gratitude to the Count for his action in this matter. To Morellet he[18] wrote, that he owed the Count his tranquillity, in having protected his book; and when, a few years later, he published his book on Style, he dedicated it to Firmian as his benefactor, thanking him for having scattered the clouds that envy and ignorance had gathered thickly over his head, and for having protected one whose only object had been to declare with the greatest caution and respect the interests of humanity.

Not only is it the general interest that crimes should not be committed, but that they should be rare in proportion to the evils they cause to society. The more opposed therefore that crimes are to the public welfare, and the more numerous the incentives to them, the stronger should be the repellent obstacles. This principle accordingly establishes the necessity of a certain proportion between crimes and punishments.

Who can read history without being horror-struck at the barbarous and useless torments which men, who were called wise, in cold blood devised and executed? Who is there but must feel his blood boil, when he regards the thousands of wretches whom misery, either intended or tolerated by the laws (which have always favoured the few and outraged the many), has driven to a desperate return to the original state of nature; when he sees them either accused by men endowed with the same senses, and consequently with the same passions as themselves, of impossible crimes, the fiction of timid ignorance, or guilty of nothing but fidelity to their own principles; and when he sees them lacerated by slow tortures, subject to well-contrived formalities, an agreeable sight for a fanatical multitude?

False ideas of utility entertained by legislators are one source of errors and injustice. It is a false idea of utility which thinks more of the inconvenience of individuals than of the general inconvenience; which tyrannises over mens feelings, instead of arousing them into action; which says to Reason, Be thou subject. It is a false idea of utility which sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling drawback; which would deprive men of the use of fire because it burns or of water because it drowns; and whose only remedy for evils is the entire destruction of their causes. Of such a kind are laws prohibiting the wearing of arms, for they only disarm those who are not inclined nor resolved to commit crimes, whilst those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, the most important in the law-code, are little likely to be induced to respect those lesser and purely arbitrary laws, which are easier to contravene with impunity; and the strict observance of which would imply the destruction of all personal liberty, (that liberty dearest to the enlightened legislator and to men generally,) subjecting the innocent to vexations[234] which only the guilty deserve. These laws, whilst they make still worse the position of the assailed, improve that of their assailants; they increase rather than diminish the number of homicides, owing to the greater confidence with which an unarmed man may be attacked than an armed one. They are not so much preventive of crimes as fearful of them, due as they are to the excitement roused by particular facts, not to any reasoned consideration of the advantages or disadvantages of a general decree. Again, it is a false idea of utility, which would seek to impart to a multitude of intelligent beings the same symmetry and order that brute and inanimate matter admits of; which neglects present motives, the only constantly powerful influences with the generality of men, to give force to remote and future ones, the impression of which is very brief and feeble, unless a force of imagination beyond what is usual makes up, by its magnifying power, for the objects remoteness. Lastly, it is a false idea of utility, which, sacrificing the thing to the name, distinguishes the public good from that of every individual member of the public. There is this difference between the state of society and the state of nature, that in the latter a savage only commits injuries against others with a view to benefit himself, whilst in the former state men are sometimes moved by bad laws to injure others without any corresponding benefit to themselves. The tyrant casts[235] fear and dread into the minds of his slaves, but they return by repercussion with all the greater force to torment his own breast. The more confined fear is in its range, so much the less dangerous is it to him who makes it the instrument of his happiness; but the more public it is and the larger the number of people it agitates, so much the more likely is it that there will be some rash, some desperate, or some clever and bold man who will try to make use of others for his own purpose, by raising in them hopes, that are all the more pleasant and seductive as the risk incurred in them is spread over a greater number, and as the value attached by the wretched to their existence diminishes in proportion to their misery. This is the reason why offences ever give rise to fresh ones: that hatred is a feeling much more durable than love, inasmuch as it derives its force from the very cause that weakens the latter, namely, from the continuance of the acts that produce it.

Capital punishment being less general in the world now than torture was when Beccaria wrote, it seems to be a fair logical inference that it is already far advanced towards its total disappearance. For the same argument which Voltaire applied in the case of torture cannot fail sooner or later to be applied to capital punishment. If, he says, there were but one nation in the world which had abolished the use of torture; and if in that nation crimes were no more frequent than in others, its example would be surely sufficient for the rest of the world. England alone might instruct all other nations in this particular; but England is not the only nation. Torture has been abolished in other countries, and with success; the question, therefore, is decided. If in this argument we read capital punishment instead of torture, murders instead of crimes, and Portugal instead of England, we shall best appreciate that which is after all the strongest argument against capital punishment, namely, that it has been proved unnecessary for its professed object in so many countries that it might safely be relinquished in all.