It is not easy in the days of a milder administration of penal laws than a century ago the most sanguine could have dreamed of to do full justice to those who laboured, as Beccaria and his friends did, at the peril of their lives and liberties, for those very immunities which we now enjoy. We cannot conceive that it should ever have been necessary to argue against torture, or that it should have been a bold thing to do so; still less can we conceive that it should ever have had its defenders, or that men should have been contented with the sophism, that it was indeed an evil, but an evil which was necessary and inevitable.

Thefts without violence should be punished by fine. He who enriches himself at anothers expense ought to suffer at his own. But, as theft is generally only the crime of wretchedness and despair, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property (a terrible, and perhaps not necessary right[67]) has left but a bare subsistence; and as pecuniary penalties increase the number of criminals above the number of crimes, depriving the innocent of their bread in order to give it to the wicked, the fittest punishment will be that kind of servitude which[214] alone can be called just, namely, the temporary servitude of a mans labour and person for the compensation of society, the personal and absolute dependence due from a man who has essayed to exercise an unjust superiority over the social compact. But when the theft is accompanied with violence, the punishment also should be a combination of corporal and servile punishment. Some previous writers have shown the evident abuse that arises from not distinguishing punishments for thefts of violence from those for thefts of cunning, thus making an absurd equation between a large sum of money and the life of a man. For they are crimes of a different nature; and in politics, as in mathematics, this axiom is most certain, that between heterogeneous quantities the terms of difference are infinite; but it is never superfluous to repeat what has hardly ever been put into practice. Political machinery more than anything else retains the motion originally given to it, and is the slowest to adapt itself to a fresh one.

But I say in addition: it is to seek to confound all the relations of things to require a man to be at the same time accuser and accused, to make pain the crucible of truth, as if the test of it lay in the muscles and sinews of an unfortunate wretch. The law which ordains the use of torture is a law which says to men: Resist pain; and if Nature has created in you an inextinguishable self-love, if she has given you an inalienable right of self-defence, I create in you a totally[150] contrary affection, namely, an heroic self-hatred, and I command you to accuse yourselves, and to speak the truth between the laceration of your muscles and the dislocation of your bones. Such are the fatal arguments employed, if not clearly, at least vaguely, by men disposed to crimes, among whom, as we have seen, the abuse of religion is more potent than religion itself.

The majority of mankind lack that vigour which is equally necessary for the greatest crimes as for the greatest virtues; whence it would appear, that both extremes are contemporaneous phenomena in nations[162] which depend rather on the energy of their government and of the passions that tend to the public good, than on their size and the constant goodness of their laws. In the latter the weakened passions seem more adapted to maintain than to improve the form of government. From which flows an important consequence, namely, that great crimes in a nation do not always prove its decline. The death penalty therefore is not a right; I have proved that it cannot be so; but it is a war of a nation against one of its members, because his annihilation is deemed necessary and expedient. But if I can show that his death is neither necessary nor expedient, I shall have won the cause of humanity.


The multiplication of the human race, slight in the abstract, but far in excess of the means afforded by nature, barren and deserted as it originally was, for the satisfaction of mens ever increasing wants, caused the first savages to associate together. The first unions necessarily led to others to oppose them, and so the state of war passed from individuals to nations.


To return to the innocent bankrupt. Granting that his obligation should not be extinguishable by anything short of total payment; granting that he should not be suffered to withdraw from it without the[218] consent of the parties interested, nor to transfer under the dominion of other laws his industry, which should perforce be employed, under penalties, to enable him to satisfy his creditors in proportion to his profits; what fair pretext, I ask, can there be, such as the security of commerce or the sacred right of property, to justify the deprivation of his liberty? Such a deprivation is only of use, when it is sought to discover the secrets of a supposed innocent bankrupt by the evils of servitude, a most unusual circumstance where a rigorous inquiry is instituted. I believe it to be a maxim in legislation, that the amount of political inconveniences varies directly in proportion to the injury they do the public, and inversely in proportion to the difficulty of their proof.

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.

It is not true that the sciences have always been injurious to mankind; when they were so, it was an inevitable evil. The multiplication of the human race over the face of the earth introduced war, the ruder arts, and the first laws, mere temporary agreements which perished with the necessity that gave rise to them. This was mankinds primitive philosophy, the few elements of which were just, because the indolence and slight wisdom of their framers preserved them from error. But with the multiplication of men there went ever a multiplication of their wants. Stronger and more lasting impressions were, therefore, needed, in order to turn them back from repeated lapses to that primitive state of disunion which each return to it rendered worse. Those primitive delusions, therefore, which peopled the earth with false divinities and created an invisible universe that governed our own, conferred a great benefitI mean a great political benefitupon humanity. Those men were benefactors of their kind, who dared to deceive them and drag them, docile and ignorant, to worship at the altars. By presenting to them objects that lay beyond the scope of sense and fled from their grasp the nearer they seemed to approach themnever despised, because never well understoodthey concentrated their divided passions upon a single object[247] of supreme interest to them. These were the first steps of all the nations that formed themselves out of savage tribes; this was the epoch when larger communities were formed, and such was their necessary and perhaps their only bond. I say nothing of that chosen people of God, for whom the most extraordinary miracles and the most signal favours were a substitute for human policy. But as it is the quality of error to fall into infinite subdivisions, so the sciences that grew out of it made of mankind a blind fanatical multitude, which, shut up within a close labyrinth, collides together in such confusion, that some sensitive and philosophical minds have regretted to this day the ancient savage state. That is the first epoch in which the sciences or rather opinions are injurious.

What should we think of a government that has no other means than fear for keeping men in a country, to which they are naturally attached from the earliest impressions of their infancy? The surest way of keeping them in their country is to augment the relative welfare of each of them. As every effort should be employed to turn the balance of commerce in our own favour, so it is the greatest interest of a sovereign and a nation, that the sum of happiness, compared with that of neighbouring nations, should be greater at home than elsewhere. The pleasures of luxury are not the principal elements in this happiness, however much they may be a necessary remedy to that inequality which increases with a countrys progress, and a check upon the tendency of wealth to accumulate in the hands of a single ruler.[69]

The right to ask such a question derives itself from recent experience. In 1853 the country decided to shorten terms of penal servitude as compared with those of the then expiring system of transportation, for which they were to be substituted. Four years later it was resolved to equalise terms of penal servitude with those formerly given of transportation, though transportation for seven years was still to have its equivalent in three of penal servitude. Then came the garrotting year, 1862, in consequence of which the minimum term of penal servitude was raised to five years, whilst no sentence of penal servitude, after a previous conviction of felony, was to be for less than seven years. Now again the tide has turned in favour of shorter sentences, and it is officially proposed to relinquish the latter minimum of servitude as too severe, and as leading in practice to sentences of simple imprisonment, which on the other hand are declared to be too slight.