It is remarkable that a book which has done more for law reform than any other before or since should have been written by a man who was not a lawyer by profession, who was totally unversed in legal practice, and who was only twenty-six when he attacked a system of law which had on its side all authority, living and dead. Hume was not twenty-seven when[4] he published his Treatise on Human Nature, nor was Berkeley more than twenty-six when he published his Principles of Human Knowledge. The similar precocity displayed by Beccaria is suggestive, therefore, of the inquiry, how far the greatest revolutions in the thoughts or customs of the world have been due to writers under thirty years of age. CHAPTER XXX. THEFTS.

Capital punishment is injurious by the example of barbarity it presents. If human passions, or the necessities of war, have taught men to shed one anothers blood, the laws, which are intended to moderate human conduct, ought not to extend the savage example, which in the case of a legal execution is all the more baneful in that it is carried out with studied formalities. To me it seems an absurdity, that the laws, which are the expression of the public will, which abhor and which punish murder, should themselves[177] commit one; and that, to deter citizens from private assassination, they should themselves order a public murder. What are the true and the most useful laws? Are they not those covenants and conditions which all would wish observed and proposed, when the incessant voice of private interest is hushed or is united with the interest of the public? What are every mans feelings about capital punishment? Let us read them in the gestures of indignation and scorn with which everyone looks upon the executioner, who is, after all, an innocent administrator of the public will, a good citizen contributory to the public welfare, an instrument as necessary for the internal security of a State as brave soldiers are for its external. What, then, is the source of this contradiction; and why is this feeling, in spite of reason, ineradicable in mankind? Because men in their most secret hearts, that part of them which more than any other still preserves the original form of their first nature, have ever believed that their lives lie at no ones disposal, save in that of necessity alone, which, with its iron sceptre, rules the universe. There is no need to follow in further detail the life of Beccaria, for from this time to his death twenty-six years afterwards he never did nor wrote anything which again placed him conspicuously in the worlds eye.[16] His time was divided between the calls of his family and his country, but even as a member of the Government he never filled any very important post nor distinguished himself in any way above his colleagues. Three years before his death he became a[28] member of a committee for the reform of the civil and criminal jurisprudence, and he and his former friend Pietro Verri lived to see many of the ideals of their youth become the actualities of their manhood, themselves helping to promote their accomplishment. It is characteristic of Beccaria that on two several occasions, when the King of Naples came to visit him in his house, he absented himself purposely from the irksomeness of an interview. So he lived to the age of fifty-six, little noticed by the world, a lover of solitude rather than of society, preferring a few friends to many acquaintances, leading a quiet and useful life, but to the last true to the philosophy he had professed in his youth, that it is better to live as a spectator of the world than as one with any direct interest in the game. In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. I have become acquainted, says a released convict, with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls. The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the mans vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.[56] It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder.

They who have thought that the criminals intention was the true measure of crimes were in the wrong. For the intention depends on the actual impression of things upon a man, and on his precedent mental disposition, things which vary in all men and in each man, according to the very rapid succession of his ideas, his passions, and his circumstances. It would, therefore, be necessary to form not only a particular code for each citizen, but a fresh law for every crime. Sometimes with the best intentions men do the greatest evil to society; and sometimes with the very worst they do it the greatest good. The second epoch of history consists in the hard and terrible transition from errors to truth, from the darkness of ignorance to the light. The great clash between the errors which are serviceable to a few men of power and the truths which are serviceable to the weak and the many, and the contact and fermentation of the passions at such a period aroused, are a source of infinite evils to unhappy humanity. Whoever ponders on the different histories of the world, which after certain intervals of time are so much alike in their principal episodes, will therein frequently observe the sacrifice of a whole generation[248] to the welfare of succeeding ones, in the painful but necessary transition from the darkness of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from despotism to freedom, which result from the sacrifice. But when truth, whose progress at first is slow and afterwards rapid (after mens minds have calmed down and the fire is quenched that purged a nation of the evils it suffered), sits as the companion of kings upon the throne, and is reverenced and worshipped in the parliaments of free governments, who will ever dare assert that the light which enlightens the people is more injurious than darkness, and that acknowledging the true and simple relations of things is pernicious to mankind?

Are the same penalties equally useful in all times? Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long[9] and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that philosophical indolence which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.[6]