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If we would bring to the study of Beccarias treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries. In those days to steal five shillings worth of goods from a shop was a capital offence, and Paley had explained the philosophy of the punishment. It would be tedious to follow the course of Romillys bill against this law, called the Shoplifting Act,[62] through the details of its history. Suffice it to say that it passed the Commons in 1810, 1811, 1813, 1816, but was regularly thrown out by the Lords, and only definitely became law many years later. But though the debates on the subject no longer possess the vivid interest that once belonged to them, and are best left to the oblivion that enshrouds them, it is instructive to take just one sample of the eloquence and arguments, that once led Lords and Bishops captive and expressed the highest legal wisdom obtainable in England.

A still greater honour was the commentary written by Voltaire. The fact that only within a few miles of his own residence a girl of eighteen had been hung for the exposure of a bastard child led Voltaire to welcome Beccarias work as a sign that a period of softer manners and more humane laws was about to dawn upon the worlds history. Should not a people, he argues, who like the French pique themselves on their politeness also pride themselves on their humanity? Should they retain the use of torture, merely because it was an ancient custom, when the experience of England and other countries showed that crimes were not more numerous in countries where it was not in use, and when reason indicated the absurdity of inflicting on a man, before his condemnation, a punishment more horrible than would await his proved guilt? What could be more cruel, too, than the maxim of law that a man who forfeited his life forfeited his estates? What more inhuman than thus to punish a whole family for the crime of an individual, perhaps condemning a wife[14] and children to beg their bread because the head of the family had harboured a Protestant preacher or listened to his sermon in a cavern or a desert? Amid the contrariety of laws that governed France, the object of the criminal procedure to bring an accused man to destruction might be said to be the only law which was uniform throughout the country.

In view of these principles it will appear strange (to anyone who does not reflect, that reason has, so to speak, never yet legislated for a nation), that it is just the most atrocious crimes or the most secret and chimerical onesthat is, those of the least probabilitywhich are proved by conjectures or by the weakest and most equivocal proofs: as if it were the interest of the laws and of the judge, not to search for the truth, but to find out the crime; as if the danger of condemning an innocent man were not so much the greater, the greater the probability of his innocence over that of his guilt.

CHAPTER XXXI. SMUGGLING. 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.

CHAPTER III. CONSEQUENCES.

But although the laws of every country thus recognise in different degrees the retributive nature of punishment, by their constant attention to its apportionment to crime, there is another corollary of the desirability of a just proportion between the two, which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, accepted: namely, that from the point of view of the public interest, which in theory is the only legal view, it is no mitigation of a crime that it is a first offence, nor any aggravation of one that it is the second.

A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his childrens wants[89] he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve ducks eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust?

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?

But these periods of time will not be lengthened in exact proportion to the atrocity of crimes, since the probability of a crime is in inverse ratio to its atrocity. It will, then, be necessary to shorten the period for inquiry and to increase that of prescription; which[159] may appear to contradict what I said before, namely, that it is possible to inflict equal penalties on unequal crimes, by counting as a penalty that period of imprisonment or of prescription which precedes the verdict. To explain to the reader my idea: I distinguish two kinds of crimesthe first, atrocious crimes, beginning with homicide and including all the excessive forms of wickedness; the second comprising less considerable crimes. This distinction is founded in human nature. Personal security is a natural right, the security of property a social one. The number of motives which impel men to violate their natural affections is far smaller than those which impel them, by their natural longing for happiness, to violate a right which they do not find written in their hearts but only in the conventions of society. The very great difference between the probability of these two kinds of crime respectively makes it necessary that they should be ruled by different principles. In cases of the more atrocious crimes, because they are more uncommon, the time for inquiry ought to be so much the less as the probability of the innocence of the accused is greater; and the time of prescription ought to be longer, as on an ultimate definite sentence of guilt or innocence depends the destruction of the hope of impunity, the harm of which is proportioned to the atrocity of the crime. But in cases of lesser criminality, where the presumption in favour of a mans[160] innocence is less, the time for inquiry should be longer; and as the harm of impunity is less, the time of prescription should be shorter. But such a division of crimes ought, indeed, not to be admitted, if the danger of impunity decreased exactly in proportion to the greater probability of the crime. One should remember that an accused man, whose guilt or innocence is uncertain, may, though acquitted for lack of proofs, be subjected for the same crime to a fresh imprisonment and inquiry, in the event of fresh legal proofs rising up against him, so long as the time of prescription accorded by the laws has not been past. Such at least is the compromise that I think best fitted to preserve both the liberty and the security of the subject, it being only too easy so to favour the one at the expense of the other, that these two blessings, the inalienable and equal patrimony of every citizen, are left unprotected and undefended, the one from declared or veiled despotism, the other from the turbulence of civil anarchy.