Beccaria himself was ready enough to refer all his thoughts to French inspiration, and to lay aside all claim to originality, with respect to which DAlembert once wrote to him: A man such as you has no need of a master, still less of a master like myself. You are like the Titus Curtius of Tacitus, ex se natus, nor have your offspring any grandparent. A father like yourself is enough for them.

This infamous crucible of truth is a still-existing monument of that primitive and savage legal system, which called trials by fire and boiling water, or the accidental decisions of combat, judgments of God, as if the rings of the eternal chain in the control of the First Cause must at every moment be disarranged and put out for the petty institutions of mankind. The only difference between torture and the trial by fire and water is, that the result of the former seems to depend on the will of the accused, and that of the other two on a fact which is purely physical and extrinsic to the sufferer; but the difference is only apparent, not real. The avowal of truth under tortures and agonies is as little free as was in those times the prevention without fraud of the usual effects of fire and boiling water. Every act of our will is ever proportioned to the force of the sensible impression which causes it, and the sensibility of every man is limited. Hence the impression produced by pain may be so intense as to occupy a mans entire sensibility and leave him no other liberty than the choice of the shortest way of escape, for the present moment, from his penalty. Under such circumstances the answer of the accused is as[151] inevitable as the impressions produced by fire and water; and the innocent man who is sensitive will declare himself guilty, when by so doing he hopes to bring his agonies to an end. All the difference between guilt and innocence is lost by virtue of the very means which they profess to employ for its discovery.

The influence of the predominant French philosophy appears throughout Beccarias treatise. Human justice is based on the idea of public utility, and the object of legislation is to conduct men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery. The vein of dissatisfaction with life and of disbelief in human virtue is a marked feature of Beccarias philosophy. To him life is a desert, in which a few physical pleasures lie scattered here and there;[5] his own country is only a place of exile, save for the presence of a few friends engaged like himself in a war with ignorance. Human ideas of morality and virtue have only been produced in the course of many centuries and after much bloodshed, but slow and difficult as their growth has been, they are ever ready to disappear at the slightest breeze that blows against them. Ramsay argues that the penal laws of a particular country can only be considered with reference to the needs of a particular country, and not in the abstract; that the government of a country will always enforce laws with a view to its own security; and that nothing less than a general revolution will ever make the holders of political power listen for a moment to the claims of philosophers.

The death of a citizen can only be deemed necessary for two reasons. The first is when, though deprived of his personal freedom, he has still such connections and power as threaten the national security; when his existence is capable of producing a dangerous revolution in the established form of government. The death of a citizen becomes then necessary when the nation is recovering or losing its liberty, or in a time of anarchy, when confusion takes the place of laws; but in times when the laws hold undisturbed sway, when the form of government corresponds with the wishes of a united nation, and is defended internally and externally by force, and by opinion which is perhaps even stronger than force, where the supreme power rests only with the real sovereign, and riches serve to purchase pleasures but not places, I see no necessity for destroying a citizen, except when his death might be the real and only restraint for diverting others from committing crimes; this latter[171] case constituting the second reason for which one may believe capital punishment to be both just and necessary. CHAPTER XXXIX. OF FAMILY SPIRIT.

It is unhappily no mere theory, that the majority of crimes are committed precisely by those who risk most in committing them; by those, that is, who commit them with the aggravated penalty full in view. By the existing law (of which both the Criminal Code- and the Penal Servitude-Commissioners have proposed the mitigation) anyone convicted of felony after a previous conviction for felony is liable to penal servitude for life, or to imprisonment with hard labour for four years, with one or more whippings. The minimum punishment for a second conviction of felony is seven years. Yet, with the knowledge of such increased punishments before their eyes, with the full consciousness of their liabilities as old offenders, official statistics show that of both the male and female convicts in the English convict prisons considerably more than half have incurred previous convictions.[50] Of the male convicts in 1878, 79 per cent.,[93] and of the female 89 per cent., were cases of reciduous crime. May it not, then, be argued from such a failure of the system to an error in the principle on which it rests? For is it not evident that the aggravated penalty does as little to deter as the original punishment does to reform? The cries of sages and philosophers are as the cries of the innocent man on the wheel, where they have never prevented, nor will ever prevent him from expiring, with his eyes upturned to heaven, which will perhaps some day stir up enthusiasm, or religious madness, or some other avenging folly, to accomplish all that their wisdom has failed to do. It is never the oration of the philosopher which disarms the powerful ruler; it is something else, which the combination of chance events brings about. Meanwhile we must not seek to force it from him, but must entreat humbly for such good as he can grant us, that is which he can grant us without injury to himself.


The first consequence of these principles is, that the laws alone can decree punishments for crimes, and this authority can only rest with the legislator, who represents collective society as united by a social contract. No magistrate (who is part of society) can justly inflict punishments upon another member of the same society. But since a punishment that exceeds the legally fixed limit is the lawful punishment plus another one, a magistrate can, under no pretext of zeal or the public good, add to the penalty already decreed against a delinquent citizen.


But the man who sees in prospect a great number of years, or perhaps the whole of his life, to be passed in servitude and suffering before the eyes of fellow-citizens with whom he is living in freedom and friendship, the slave of those laws which had once protected him, makes a useful comparison of all these circumstances with the uncertain result of his crimes and with the shortness of the time for which he would enjoy their fruits. The ever present example of those whom he actually sees the victims of their own imprudence, impresses him much more strongly than the sight of a punishment which hardens rather than corrects him.