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If I am confronted with the example of almost all ages and almost all nations who have inflicted the punishment of death upon some crimes, I will reply, that the example avails nothing before truth, against which there is no prescription of time; and that the history of mankind conveys to us the idea of an immense sea of errors, among which a few truths, confusedly and at long intervals, float on the surface.[179] Human sacrifices were once common to almost all nations, yet who for that reason will dare defend them? That some few states, and for a short time only, should have abstained from inflicting death, rather favours my argument than otherwise, because such a fact is in keeping with the lot of all great truths, whose duration is but as of a lightning flash in comparison with the long and darksome night that envelops mankind. That happy time has not yet arrived when truth, as error has hitherto done, shall belong to the majority of men; and from this universal law of the reign of error those truths alone have hitherto been exempt, which supreme wisdom has seen fit to distinguish from others, by making them the subject of a special revelation.

That force, similar to the force of gravitation, which constrains us to seek our own well-being, only admits of counteraction in proportion to the obstacles[198] opposed to it. The effects of this force make up the confused series of human actions; if these clash together and impede one another, punishments, which I would call political obstacles, prevent bad effects from resulting, without destroying the impelling cause, which lies in the sensibility inseparable from humanity; and the legislator, in enacting them, acts the part of a clever architect, whose function it is to counteract the tendency of gravitation to cause a building to fall, and to bring to bear all the lines which contribute to its strength.

CHAPTER XXII. OF PROSCRIPTION. Palpable but consecrated abuses, which in many nations are the necessary results of a weak political constitution, are Secret Accusations. For they render men false and reserved, and whoever may suspect that he sees in his neighbour an informer will see in him an enemy. Men then come to mask their real feelings, and by the habit of hiding them from others they at last get to hide them from themselves. Unhappy they who have come to that; who, without clear and fixed principles to guide them, wander lost and confused in the vast sea of opinions, ever busied in saving themselves from the horrors that oppress them, with the present moment ever embittered by the uncertainty of the future, and without the lasting pleasures of quiet and security, devouring in unseemly haste those few pleasures, which occur at rare intervals in their melancholy lives and scarcely console them for the fact of having lived! Is it of such men we can hope to make intrepid soldiers, defenders of their country and crown? Is it among such men we shall find incorrupt magistrates, able with their free and patriotic eloquence to sustain and develop the true interests of their sovereign, ready, with the tribute they bear, to[143] carry to the throne the love and blessings of all classes of men, and thence to bring back to palaces and cottages alike peace and security, and that active hope of ameliorating their lot which is so useful a leaven, nay, which is the life of States?

Suicide is a crime to which a punishment properly so called seems inadmissible, since it can only fall upon the innocent or else upon a cold and insensible body. If the latter mode of punishing the crime makes no more impression on the living than would be made by inflicting violence on a statue, the other mode is unjust and tyrannical, inasmuch as political freedom necessarily presupposes the purely personal nature of[223] punishment. Men love life only too much, and everything that surrounds them confirms them in this love. The seductive image of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest illusion of mortals, for the sake of which they swallow large draughts of evil mixed with a few drops of contentment, are too attractive, for one ever to fear, that the necessary impunity of such a crime should exercise any general influence. He who fears pain, obeys the laws; but death puts an end in the body to all the sources of pain. What, then, will be the motive which shall restrain the desperate hand of the suicide?

Such was legal opinion generally as expressed by its ablest representatives with respect to the due punishment for pocket-picking not a hundred years ago. It is easy now to smile at such errors, and, at the barren waste of wisdom spent in their defence, but what weight after that can be attached, on subjects of the general policy of the law, to the opinion of its chief professors? Can it be too much regretted that Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough should have sacrificed to his own authority, whilst alive, the authority of all judges ever destined to succeed him? It would be possible to distinguish a case of fraud from a grave fault, a grave fault from a light one, and this again from perfect innocence; then to affix to the first the penalties due for crimes of falsification; to the second lesser penalties, but with the loss of personal liberty; and, reserving for the last degree the free choice of the means of recovery, to deprive the third degree of such liberty, whilst leaving it to a mans creditors. But the distinction between grave and light should be fixed by the blind impartiality of the laws, not by the dangerous and arbitrary wisdom of a judge. The fixings of limits are as necessary in politics as in mathematics, equally in the measurement[219] of the public welfare as in the measurement of magnitudes.[68] A few stories may be taken as illustrative of thousands to indicate the mischief and travesty of justice which arises from the neglect of this principle, and from the custom of making a legal inquiry into moral antecedents.

Banishment, it would seem, should be employed[181] in the case of those against whom, when accused of an atrocious crime, there is a great probability but not a certainty of guilt; but for this purpose a statute is required, as little arbitrary and as precise as possible, condemning to banishment any man who shall have placed his country in the fatal dilemma of either fearing him or of injuring him, leaving him, however, the sacred right of proving his innocence. Stronger reasons then should exist to justify the banishment of a native than of a foreigner, of a man criminated for the first time than of one who has been often so situated.