Infanticide equally is the result of the unavoidable dilemma in which a woman is placed who from weakness or by violence has fallen. Finding herself placed between the alternative of infamy on the one side, and the death of a being insentient of its pains on the other, how can she fail to prefer the latter to the infallible misery awaiting both herself and her unhappy offspring? The best way to prevent this crime would be to give efficient legal protection to weakness against tyranny, which exaggerates those vices that cannot be hidden by the cloak of virtue.

CHAPTER VI. IMPRISONMENT. Thus, the two writers to whom Beccaria owed most were Montesquieu and Helvetius. The Lettres Persanes of the former, which satirised so many things then in custom, contained but little about penal laws; but the idea is there started for the first time that crimes depend but little on the mildness or severity of the punishments attached to them. The imagination, says the writer, bends of itself to the customs of the country; and eight days of prison or a slight fine have as much terror for a European brought up in a country of mild manners as the loss of an arm would have for an Asiatic.[4] The Esprit des Lois, by the same author, probably contributed more to the formation of Beccarias thoughts than the Lettres Persanes, for it is impossible to read the twelfth book of that work without being struck by the resemblance of ideas. The De LEsprit of Helvetius was condemned by the Sorbonne as a combination of all the various kinds of poison scattered through modern books. Yet it was one of the most influential books of the time. We find Hume recommending it to Adam Smith for its agreeable composition father than for its philosophy; and a writer who had much in common with Beccaria drew[8] from it the same inspiration that he did. That writer was Bentham, who tells us that when he was about twenty, and on a visit to his father and stepmother in the country, he would often walk behind them reading a book, and that his favourite author was Helvetius.

The publication of the Delitti e delle Pene interrupted its authors dreams of philosophical calm, by fulfilling his hopes of literary fame. The French encyclop?dists were the first to recognise its merits, and DAlembert, the mathematician, at once predicted for the writer the reward of an immortal[13] reputation. Morellets translation, in which the arrangement, though not the matter of the text, was entirely altered, ran through seven editions in six months, and Beccaria, as has been seen, was only too delighted with the honour thus conferred on him to complain in any way of the liberties taken by the translator with the original.

If I am confronted with the example of almost all ages and almost all nations who have inflicted the punishment of death upon some crimes, I will reply, that the example avails nothing before truth, against which there is no prescription of time; and that the history of mankind conveys to us the idea of an immense sea of errors, among which a few truths, confusedly and at long intervals, float on the surface.[179] Human sacrifices were once common to almost all nations, yet who for that reason will dare defend them? That some few states, and for a short time only, should have abstained from inflicting death, rather favours my argument than otherwise, because such a fact is in keeping with the lot of all great truths, whose duration is but as of a lightning flash in comparison with the long and darksome night that envelops mankind. That happy time has not yet arrived when truth, as error has hitherto done, shall belong to the majority of men; and from this universal law of the reign of error those truths alone have hitherto been exempt, which supreme wisdom has seen fit to distinguish from others, by making them the subject of a special revelation. The recognition of this regulation of resentment as the main object of punishment affords the best test for measuring its just amount. For that amount will be found to be just which is necessary; that is to say, which just suffices for the object it aims atthe satisfaction of general or private resentment. It must be so much, and no more, as will prevent individuals from preferring to take the law into their own hands[84] and seeking to redress their own injuries. This degree can only be gathered from experience, nor is it any real objection to it, that it must obviously be somewhat arbitrary and variable. Both Wladimir I., the first Christian Czar of Russia, and Wladimir II. tried the experiment of abolishing capital punishment for murder; but the increase of murders by the vendetta compelled them to fall back upon the old modes of punishment.[46] Some centuries later the Empress Elizabeth successfully tried the same experiment, without the revival of the vendetta, the state of society having so far altered that the relations of a murdered man no longer insisted on the death of his murderer. But had Elizabeth abolished all legal punishment for murderhad she, that is, allowed no public vendetta of any kindundoubtedly the vendetta would have become private again. As soon as the proofs of a crime and its reality are fully certified, the criminal must be allowed time and opportunity for his defence; but the time allowed must be so short as not to interfere with the speediness of his punishment, which, as we have seen, is one of the principal restraints from crime. A false philanthropy seems opposed to this shortness of time; but all doubt will vanish, on reflection that the more defective any system of law is, the greater are the dangers to which innocence is exposed.

Infamy is a sign of public disapprobation, depriving a criminal of the good-will of his countrymen, of their confidence, and of that feeling almost of fraternity that a common life inspires. It does not depend upon the laws. Hence the infamy which the laws inflict should be the same as that which arises from the natural relations of things, the same as that taught by universal morality, or by that particular morality, which depends on particular systems, and sets the law for ordinary opinions or for this and that nation. If the one kind of infamy is different from the other, either the law loses in public esteem, or the ideas of morality and honesty disappear, in spite of declamations, which are never efficacious against facts. Whoever declares actions to be infamous which are in themselves indifferent, detracts from the infamy of actions that are really in themselves infamous.

No law ought to be promulgated that has not force to back it, or that the nature of things deprives of validity; and as minds are ruled by opinion, which[224] itself follows the slow and indirect impressions of legislation, whilst it resists those that are direct and violent, the most salutary laws become infected with the contempt felt for useless laws, and are regarded rather as obstacles to be surmounted than as the deposit of the public welfare.

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.

It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery,[243] according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life. But the means hitherto employed for this end are for the most part false and contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of men to a geometrical harmony without any irregularity or confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not prevent aberrations in the movements of the planets, so, in the infinite and contradictory attractions of pleasure and pain, disturbances and disorder cannot be prevented by human laws. Yet this is the chimera that narrow-minded men pursue, when they have power in their hands. To prohibit a number of indifferent acts is not to prevent the crimes that may arise from them, but it is to create new ones from them; it is to give capricious definitions of virtue and vice which are proclaimed as eternal and immutable in their nature. To what should we be reduced if everything had to be forbidden us which might tempt us to a crime? It would be necessary to deprive a man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to the commission of those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws; and if the likelihood of crimes is proportioned to the number of motives to commit them, an increase of the field of crimes is an increase of the likelihood of their commission. The majority of laws are nothing but[244] privileges, or a tribute paid by all to the convenience of some few.


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.

From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the[166] minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal.