Among other abuses of grammar, which have no slight influence on human affairs, that one is notable which makes the evidence of a condemned criminal null and void. He is dead civilly say gravely the peripatetic lawyers, and a dead man is incapable of any action. In support of this silly metaphor many[139] victims have been sacrificed, and it has very often been disputed with all seriousness whether the truth should not yield to judicial formulas. Provided that the testimony of a condemned criminal does not go to the extent of stopping the course of justice, why should not a fitting period be allowed, even after condemnation, both to the extreme wretchedness of the criminal and to the interests of truth, so that, by his adducing fresh matter to alter the complexion of the fact, he may justify himself or others in a new trial? Forms and ceremonies are necessary in the administration of justice, because they leave nothing to the free will of the administrator; because they give the people an idea of a justice which is not tumultuary and self-interested, but steadfast and regular; and because men, the slaves of habit and imitation, are more influenced by their feelings than by arguments. But such forms can never without fatal danger be so firmly fixed by the laws as to be injurious to truth, which from being either too simple or two complex needs some external pomp to conciliate the ignorant populace.

The few select friends who made life at Milan just supportable were Pietro and Alessandro Verri, Frisi, and some others. Pietro Verri was ten years older than Beccaria, and it was at his instance that the latter wrote his first treatise on a subject which then demanded some attention, namely, The Disorders and Remedies of the Coinage. This work was published two years before the Crimes and Punishments, but though it provoked much discussion at the time, it has long since ceased to have any interest. If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes. In order that a punishment may attain its object, it is enough if the evil of the punishment exceeds the advantage of the crime, and in this excess of evil the certainty of punishment and the loss of the possible advantage from the crime ought to be considered as part; all beyond this is superfluous and consequently tyrannical. Men regulate their conduct by the reiterated impression of evils they know, not by reason of evils they ignore. Given two nations, in one of which, in the scale of punishments proportioned[167] to the scale of crimes, the severest penalty is perpetual servitude, and in the other the wheel; I say that the former will have as great a dread of its severest punishment as the latter will have; and if there be any reason for transporting to the former country the greater penalties of the other, the same reasoning will serve for increasing still more the penalties of this latter country, passing imperceptibly from the wheel to the slowest and most elaborate tortures, nay, even to the last refinements of that science which tyrants understand only too well.

To examine and distinguish all the different sorts[120] of crimes and the manner of punishing them would now be our natural task, were it not that their nature, which varies with the different circumstances of times and places, would compel us to enter upon too vast and wearisome a mass of detail. But it will suffice to indicate the most general principles and the most pernicious and common errors, in order to undeceive no less those who, from a mistaken love of liberty, would introduce anarchy, than those who would be glad to reduce their fellow-men to the uniform regularity of a convent.

It is well known that Lord Tenterden refused ever to sit again in the House of Lords if the Reform Bill became law, and that he predicted that that measure would amount to the political extinction of the Upper House. As regards the history of our criminal law Lord Tenterden was right, for the period of long pauses had passed away, and rapid changes were made with but short intervals of breathing-time. From the year the Reform Bill passed the school of Beccaria and Bentham achieved rapid successes in England. In 1832 it ceased to be capital to steal a horse or a sheep, in 1833 to break into a house, in 1834 to return prematurely from transportation, in 1835 to commit sacrilege or to steal a letter. But[67] even till 1837 there were still 37 capital offences on the statute-book; and now there are only two, murder and treason. Hanging in chains was abolished in 1834; the pillory was wholly abolished in 1837; and the same year Ewart, after many years struggle, obtained for prisoners on trial for felony the right (still merely a nominal one)[39] of being defended by counsel.

I said that the promptness of punishment is more useful, because the shorter the interval of time between the punishment and the misdeed, the stronger and the more lasting in the human mind is the association of these ideas, crime and punishment, so that insensibly they come to be considered, the one as the cause and the other as its necessary and inevitable consequence. It is a proved fact that the association of ideas is the cement of the whole fabric of the human intellect, and that without it pleasure and pain would be isolated and ineffective feelings. The further removed men are from general ideas and universal principles, that is, the more commonplace they are, the more they act by their immediate and nearest associations, to the neglect of remoter and more complex ones, the latter being of service only[187] to men strongly impassioned for a given object of pursuit, inasmuch as the light of attention illuminates a single object, whilst it leaves the others obscure. They are also of service to minds of a higher quality, because, having acquired the habit of running rapidly over many subjects at a time, they possess facility in placing in contrast with one another many partial feelings, so that the result of their thoughts, in other words, their action, is less perilous and uncertain.

Who can read history without being horror-struck at the barbarous and useless torments which men, who were called wise, in cold blood devised and executed? Who is there but must feel his blood boil, when he regards the thousands of wretches whom misery, either intended or tolerated by the laws (which have always favoured the few and outraged the many), has driven to a desperate return to the original state of nature; when he sees them either accused by men endowed with the same senses, and consequently with the same passions as themselves, of impossible crimes, the fiction of timid ignorance, or guilty of nothing but fidelity to their own principles; and when he sees them lacerated by slow tortures, subject to well-contrived formalities, an agreeable sight for a fanatical multitude?

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?

CHAPTER XXX. THEFTS.