Whoever, therefore, shall wish to honour me with his criticisms, I would have begin with a thorough comprehension of the purpose of my worka purpose which, so far from diminishing legitimate authority, will serve to increase it, if opinion can effect more over mens minds than force, and if the mildness and humanity of the government shall justify it in the eyes of all men. The ill-conceived criticisms that have been published against this book are founded on confused notions, and compel me to interrupt for a moment the arguments I was addressing to my enlightened readers, in order to close once for all every door against the misapprehensions of timid bigotry or against the calumnies of malice and envy.

The year before its publication 51 malefactors were executed in London, the year after 97, whilst not long afterwards was seen the rare spectacle of nearly 20 criminals hung at a time. Romilly was so much shocked at what he considered the folly and inhumanity of Madans book that he wrote a short tract of observations upon it, of which he sent a copy to each of the judges. But it is characteristic of the feeling of that time that only a hundred copies of his tract were sold. It was, however, from that time that Romilly began to make the criminal law his special study, so that to Madan indirectly our country owes the efforts of Romilly.

The influence of the predominant French philosophy appears throughout Beccarias treatise. Human justice is based on the idea of public utility, and the object of legislation is to conduct men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery. The vein of dissatisfaction with life and of disbelief in human virtue is a marked feature of Beccarias philosophy. To him life is a desert, in which a few physical pleasures lie scattered here and there;[5] his own country is only a place of exile, save for the presence of a few friends engaged like himself in a war with ignorance. Human ideas of morality and virtue have only been produced in the course of many centuries and after much bloodshed, but slow and difficult as their growth has been, they are ever ready to disappear at the slightest breeze that blows against them. If blind ignorance is less pernicious than confused half-knowledge, since the latter adds to the evils of ignorance those of error, which is unavoidable in a narrow view of the limits of truth, the most precious gift that a sovereign can make to himself or to his people is an enlightened man as the trustee and guardian of the sacred laws. Accustomed to see the truth and not to fear it; independent for the most part of the demands of reputation, which are never completely satisfied and put most mens virtue to a trial; used to consider humanity from higher points of view; such a man regards his own nation as a family of men and of brothers, and the distance between the nobles and the people seems to him so[249] much the less as he has before his mind the larger total of the whole human species. Philosophers acquire wants and interests unknown to the generality of men, but that one above all others, of not belying in public the principles they have taught in obscurity, and they gain the habit of loving the truth for its own sake. A selection of such men makes the happiness of a people, but a happiness which is only transitory, unless good laws so increase their number as to lessen the probability, always considerable, of an unfortunate choice.

From all that has gone before a general theorem may be deduced, of great utility, though little comformable to custom, that common lawgiver of nations. The theorem is this: In order that every punishment may not be an act of violence, committed by one man or by many against a single individual, it ought to be above all things public, speedy, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportioned to its crime, dictated by the laws.

The same may be said, though for a different reason, where there are several accomplices of a crime, not all of them its immediate perpetrators. When several men join together in an undertaking, the greater its[163] risk is, the more will they seek to make it equal for all of them; the more difficult it will be, therefore, to find one of them who will be willing to put the deed into execution, if he thereby incurs a greater risk than that incurred by his accomplices. The only exception would be where the perpetrator received a fixed reward, for then, the perpetrator having a compensation for his greater risk, the punishment should be equalised between him and his accomplices. Such reflections may appear too metaphysical to whosoever does not consider that it is of the utmost advantage for the laws to afford as few grounds of agreement as possible between companions in crime.

Some persons have maintained that a crime, that is, an action contrary to the laws, is punishable wherever committed, as if the character of subject[193] were indelible, or, in other words, synonymous with, nay, worse than, the character of slave; as if a man could be the subject of one kingdom and the resident of another, or as if his actions could without contradiction be subordinate to two sovereign powers and to two legal systems often contradictory. So some think that a cruel action done, say, at Constantinople is punishable at Paris, for the abstract reason that he who offends humanity deserves to have collective humanity for his enemy, and merits universal execration; as if judges were the avengers of human sensibility in general, and not rather of the covenants that bind men together. The place of punishment is the place of the crime, because there, and there only, is it a compulsory duty to injure an individual, to prevent an injury to the public. A villain, but one who has not broken the covenants of the society of which he was not a member, may be an object of fear, and for that reason be expelled and exiled by the superior power of that society; but he cannot be legally and formally punished, since it is for the laws to avenge, not the intrinsic malice of particular actions, but the violation of compacts.

But at least, it will be thought, we have by this time arrived at some principles about punishment which correspond with the eternal truths of equity. Is not Equality, for instance, one of the primary essentials of punishment? Does it not stand as a penal axiom with almost the sanction of a moral law that all men should suffer equally for equal crimes? Yet, if by equality be meant the same punishment, the same kind of labour, the same term of servitude, the same pecuniary fineand this is the only thing it can meanwhat more obvious than that the same punishment for rich and poor, for young and old, for strong and weak, for men and women, for educated and uneducated, will bring to the constitution of a penal code the utmost inequality the imagination can conceive? Beccaria insists that the law can do no more than assign the same extrinsic punishment to the same crime; that is, the same punishment, regardless of all other external considerations; and he calls for the infliction of the same punishment on the nobleman as on the commoner. Let it be so; but the same punishment is no longer an equal one; and hence from this very demand for equality springs the demand for its very opposite, for what Bentham calls the equability of punishment; that is, consideration[77] for the different circumstances of individual criminals. So that the same nominal punishment not being the same real one, equality of punishment appears to be a chimera, and the law, which punishes, say, a distinguished officer less severely than it punishes a costermonger for the same crime, errs perhaps really less from actual equality than if it condemned both to precisely the same punishment.

In the second place, a large proportion of the habitual criminal class is formed of weak-minded or imbecile persons, notorious for the repeated commission of petty thefts, crimes of violence and passion, and confessed to be not amenable to the ordinary influences of self-interest or fear of punishment.[57] It is now proposed to separate this class of prisoners from others; but is punishment operative on them at all? Is not their proper place an asylum?

Thus it has come about that, after steady opposition and fierce conflict, English law finds itself at the very point which Johnson and Goldsmith had attained a hundred years before; so true is it, as Beccaria has said, that the enlightenment of a nation is always a century in advance of its practice. The victory has conclusively been with the ultra-philosophers, as they were once called, with the speculative humanitarians, for whom good Lord Ellenborough had so honest a contempt. Paleys philosophy has long since been forgotten, and if it affords any lesson at all, it lies chiefly in a comparison between his gloomy predictions and the actual results of the changes he deprecated. The practical and professional school of law has yielded on all the most important points to the dissolving influence of Beccarias treatise; and the growing demand for increasing the security of human life by the institution[68] of a penalty, more effective because more certain, than that at present in force, points to the still further triumph of Beccarias principles, likely before long to mark the progress of his influence in England.