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But the honour of having been the first country to lay aside the use of torture undoubtedly belongs to England, just as the honour of having been the first in modern times to abolish capital punishment, except for political offences, belongs to Russia; and the practical example thus afforded by our laws probably did more for the general abolition of the custom than any written treatise on the subject ever would have done alone. English and foreign jurists long delighted to honour the Common Law for its non-recognition of torture. But though torture was contrary to the Common Law, and even to Magna Charta, it was not contrary to Prerogative; and until the Commonwealth it was used as matter of course in all grave accusations at the mere discretion of the monarch and Privy Council.[19] Therefore Beccaria pointed to England as a country which did not use torture with more justice than Grotius had done, who, when the rack was still in use amongst us, quoted England as a proof that people might safely live without torture. Injuries that are personal and affect a mans honourthat is, the fair share of favour that he has a right to expect from othersshould be punished with disgrace.

By the same rule, in the case of theft, the value of the thing stolen, with some equivalent for the trouble of its recovery, taken from the offender or made a lien on his earnings, appears to be all that justice can demand. Sir Samuel Romilly, himself second to none as a lawyer, wrote seventy years ago: If the restitution of the property stolen, and only a few weeks or even but a few days imprisonment were the unavoidable consequence of theft, no theft would ever be committed. Yet the following sentences are taken[85] at random from authentic English sources: three months imprisonment for stealing a pipe, six months for stealing a penny, a twelvemonth for stealing an umbrella, five years penal servitude for stealing some stamps from a letter, seven years for stealing twopence. In such cases the principle of vindictiveness exceeds the limits of necessity, and therefore of justice; whilst the law loses all its dignity as the expression of unimpassioned resentment. English philosophy and legislation, therefore, owe enough to Beccaria for his treatise never to be forgotten among us. Standing, as it does, in reference to law as Bacons Novum Organon to science, or Descartes Principia to philosophy, and representing a return to first principles and rejection of mere precedent in the matter of penal laws, it will never fail to gratify those who, with little admiration for law in the concrete, can yet find pleasure in studying it in the abstract. Most men will turn readily from a system built up, as our own is, of unintelligible distinctions, and based on authority rather than on experience, to a system where no distinctions exist save those which are derived from the nature of things and are founded on the real differences that distinguish the moral actions of mankind. [19]

Others again measure crimes rather by the rank of the person injured than by their importance in regard to the public weal. Were this the true measure of crimes, any act of irreverence towards the Supreme Being should be punished more severely than the assassination of a monarch, whereas the superiority of His nature affords an infinite compensation for the difference of the offence.

Lastly, some have thought that the gravity of an acts sinfulness should be an element in the measure of crimes. But an impartial observer of the true relations between man and man, and between man[201] and God, will easily perceive the fallacy of this opinion. For the former relationship is one of equality; necessity alone, from the clash of passions and opposing interests, having given rise to the idea of the public utility, the basis of human justice. But the other relationship is one of dependence on a perfect Being and Creator, who has reserved to Himself alone the right of being at the same time legislator and judge, and can alone unite the two functions without bad effects. If He has decreed eternal punishments to those who disobey His omnipotence, what insect shall dare to take the place of Divine justice, or shall wish to avenge that Being, who is all-sufficient to Himself, who can receive from things no impression of pleasure nor of pain, and who alone of all beings acts without reaction? The degree of sinfulness in an action depends on the unsearchable wickedness of the heart, which cannot be known by finite beings without a revelation. How, then, found thereon a standard for the punishment of crimes? In such a case men might punish when God pardons, and pardon when God punishes. If men can act contrary to the Almighty by offending Him, they may also do so in the punishments they inflict. In methods of trial the use of torture is contrary to sound reason. Humanity cries out against the practice and insists on its abolition.

Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example,[50] Goldsmith could not avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.[31] Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!

What are the pretexts by which secret accusations and punishments are justified? Are they the public welfare, the security and maintenance of the form of government? But how strange a constitution is that, where he who has force on his side, and opinion, which is even stronger than force, is afraid of every citizen! Is then the indemnity of the accuser the excuse? In that case the laws do not sufficiently defend him; and shall there be subjects stronger than their sovereign? Or is it to save the informer from infamy? What! secret calumny be fair and lawful, and an open one deserving of punishment! Is it, then, the nature of the crime? If indifferent actions, or even useful actions, are called crimes, then of course accusations and trials can never be secret enough. But how can there be crimes, that is, public injuries, unless the publicity of this example, by a public trial, be at the same time[144] the interest of all men? I respect every government, and speak of none in particular. Circumstances are sometimes such that to remove an evil may seem utter ruin when it is inherent in a national system. But had I to dictate new laws in any forgotten corner of the universe, my hand would tremble and all posterity would rise before my eyes before I would authorise such a custom as that of secret accusations.

Lastly, some have thought that the gravity of an acts sinfulness should be an element in the measure of crimes. But an impartial observer of the true relations between man and man, and between man[201] and God, will easily perceive the fallacy of this opinion. For the former relationship is one of equality; necessity alone, from the clash of passions and opposing interests, having given rise to the idea of the public utility, the basis of human justice. But the other relationship is one of dependence on a perfect Being and Creator, who has reserved to Himself alone the right of being at the same time legislator and judge, and can alone unite the two functions without bad effects. If He has decreed eternal punishments to those who disobey His omnipotence, what insect shall dare to take the place of Divine justice, or shall wish to avenge that Being, who is all-sufficient to Himself, who can receive from things no impression of pleasure nor of pain, and who alone of all beings acts without reaction? The degree of sinfulness in an action depends on the unsearchable wickedness of the heart, which cannot be known by finite beings without a revelation. How, then, found thereon a standard for the punishment of crimes? In such a case men might punish when God pardons, and pardon when God punishes. If men can act contrary to the Almighty by offending Him, they may also do so in the punishments they inflict.

Repression by the law seems likewise the only means of preventing that large class of actions which affect the general character and tone of a country, whilst they injuriously affect no individual in particular. The protection of creatures too feeble to protect themselves justifies, under this head, the legal punishment of cruelty to animals. It is idle to say that the law can do nothing against the average moral sense of the community, for the law is often at first the only possible lever of our moral ideas. Were it not for the law we should still bait bulls and bears, and find amusement in cock-throwing; and till the law includes hares and pigeons within the pale of protection drawn so tenderly round bulls and bears, no moral sense is likely to arise against the morbid pleasures of coursing and pigeon-shooting.

Count Pietro Verri was the son of Gabriel, who was distinguished alike for his legal knowledge and high position in Milan. At the house of Pietro, Beccaria and the other friends used to meet for the discussion and study of political and social questions. Alessandro, the younger brother of Pietro, held the office of Protector of Prisoners, an office which consisted in visiting the prisons, listening to the grievances of the inmates, and discovering, if possible, reasons for their defence or for mercy. The distressing sights he[10] was witness of in this capacity are said to have had the most marked effect upon him; and there is no doubt that this fact caused the attention of the friends to be so much directed to the state of the penal laws. It is believed to have been at the instigation of the two brothers that Beccaria undertook the work which was destined to make his name so famous.