I know that those general principles which tend to enlighten and improve the human race are not absolutely useless that the enlightenment of nations is not without some effect on their rulers provided that the prerogative of the latter, their power, their security, their authority, their safety, is not touched thereby. I know well that this general enlightenment, so much boasted of, is a beautiful and glorious chimera, with which philosophers love to amuse themselves, but which would soon disappear if they would open history, and see therefrom to what causes improved institutions are due. The nations of antiquity have passed, and those of the present will pass, before philosophy and its influence have reformed a single government.


It is a great point in every good system of laws to determine exactly the credibility of witnesses and the proofs of guilt Every reasonable manthat is, every man with a certain connection between his ideas and with feelings like those of other menis capable of bearing witness. The true measure of his credibility is only the interest he has in speaking or in not speaking the truth; so that nothing can be more frivolous than to reject the evidence of women on the pretext of their feebleness, nothing more childish than to apply the results of real death to civil death as regards the testimony of the condemned, nothing more unmeaning than to insist on the mark of infamy in the infamous when they have no interest in lying. This honour, then, is one of those complex ideas[210] which are an aggregate not only of simple ideas but of ideas no less complex than themselves, and which in their various presentments to the mind now admit and now omit some of their different component elements, only retaining some few common ideas, just as in algebra several complex quantities admit of a common divisor. To find this common divisor in the different ideas that men form of honour, we must cast a rapid glance over the first formation of communities.

But should a man who is banished and excluded for ever from the society of which he was a member be also deprived of his property? Such a question may be regarded from different points of view. The loss of property is a greater punishment than banishment; there ought, therefore, to be some cases in which, according to his crime, a man should lose the whole, or part, or none of his property. The confiscation of the whole will occur, when the legal sentence of banishment is of a kind to annihilate all the ties that exist between society and its offending member; for in such a case the citizen dies, and only the man remains; and with regard to the political body civil death should produce the same effect as natural death. It would seem then that the confiscated property should pass to a mans lawful heirs rather than[182] to the head of the State, since death and banishment in its extreme form are the same with regard to the body politic. But it is not by this subtlety that I dare to disapprove of confiscations of property. If some have maintained that confiscations have acted as checks on acts of revenge and on the great power of individuals, it is from neglecting to consider that, however much good punishments may effect, they are not for that reason always just, because to be just they must be necessary; and an expedient injustice can be tolerated by no legislator, who wishes to close all doors against watchful tyranny, ever ready to hold out flattering hopes, by temporary advantages and by the prosperity of a few persons of celebrity, in disregard of future ruin and of the tears of numberless persons of obscurity. Confiscations place a price on the heads of the feeble, cause the innocent to suffer the punishment of the guilty, and make the commission of crimes a desperate necessity even for the innocent. What sadder sight can there be than that of a family dragged down to infamy and misery by the crimes of its head, unable to prevent them by the submission imposed on it by the laws, even supposing such prevention to have been within its power!

3. When the proofs are independent of each otherthat is to say, when they do not derive their value one from the otherthen the more numerous the proofs adduced, the greater is the probability of the fact in question, because the falsity of one proof affects in no way the force of another.

As it, then, was necessity which constrained men to yield a part of their individual liberty, it is certain that each would only place in the general deposit the least possible portiononly so much, that is, as would suffice to induce others to defend it. The aggregate of these least possible portions constitutes the right of punishment; all that is beyond this is an abuse and not justice, a fact but not a right.[64] Punishments[124] which exceed what is necessary to preserve the deposit of the public safety are in their nature unjust; and the more just punishments are, the more sacred and inviolable is personal security, and the greater the liberty that the sovereign preserves for his subjects.

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?

The Dei Delitti e delle Pene was published for the first time in 1764. It quickly ran through several editions, and was first translated into French in 1766 by the Abb Morellet, since which time it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, not excluding Greek and Russian.

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?


The question, therefore, arises, Does crime depend to any appreciable extent on imprisonment at all, or on the length or shortness of sentences?

Nothing is more dangerous than that common axiom, We must consult the spirit of the laws. It is like breaking down a dam before the torrent of opinions. This truth, which seems a paradox to ordinary minds, more struck as they are by a little present inconvenience than by the pernicious but remote consequences which flow from a false principle enrooted among a people, seems to me to be demonstrated. Our knowledge and all our ideas are reciprocally connected together; and the more complicated they are, the more numerous are the approaches to them, and the points of departure. Every man has his own point of viewa different one at different times; so that the spirit of the laws would mean the result of good or bad logic on the part of a judge, of an easy or difficult digestion; it would depend now on the violence of his passions, now on the[128] feebleness of the sufferer, on the relationship between the judge and the plaintiff, or on all those minute forces which change the appearances of everything in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence it is that we see a citizens fate change several times in his passage from one court to another; that we see the lives of wretches at the mercy of the false reasonings or of the temporary caprice of a judge, who takes as his rightful canon of interpretation the vague result of all that confused series of notions which affect his mind. Hence it is that we see the same crimes punished differently by the same court at different times, owing to its having consulted, not the constant and fixed voice of the laws, but their unstable and erring interpretations.