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These customs had doubtless their defenders, and left the world not without a struggle. It must have cost some one, whosoever first questioned the wisdom of hanging animals or murdering a criminals relations, as much ridicule as it cost Beccaria to question the efficacy of torture or the right of capital punishment. But the boldness of thought in that unknown reformer was probably lost sight of in the arrogance of his[73] profanity, and he doubtless paid with his own neck for his folly in defending the pigs. 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.

But there was another side to the brightness of this success. In literature as in war no position of honour can be won or held without danger, and of this Beccaria seems to have been conscious when he[15] pleaded against the charge of obscurity, that in writing he had had before his eyes the fear of ecclesiastical persecution. His love for truth, he confessed, stopped short at the risk of martyrdom. He had, indeed, three very clear warnings to justify his fears. Muratori, the historian, had suffered much from accusations of heresy and atheism, and had owed his immunity from worse consequences chiefly to the liberal protection of Pope Benedict XIV. The Marquis Scipio Maffei had also incurred similar charges for his historical handling of the subject of Free-will. But there was even a stronger warning than these, and one not likely to be lost on a man with youth and life before him; that was the fate of the unfortunate Giannone, who, only sixteen years before Beccaria wrote, had ended with his life in the citadel of Turin an imprisonment that had lasted twenty years, for certain observations on the Church of Rome which he had been rash enough to insert in his History of Naples. 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.

It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law, because the absurdities themselves that a whole nation adopts have always some connection with other common ideas which the same nation respects. The custom seems to have been derived from religious and spiritual ideas, which have so great an influence on the thoughts of men, on nations, and on generations. An infallible dogma assures us, that the stains contracted by human weakness[156] and undeserving of the eternal anger of the Supreme Being must be purged by an incomprehensible fire. Now, infamy is a civil stain; and as pain and fire take away spiritual and incorporeal stains, why should not the agonies of torture take away the civil stain of infamy? I believe that the confession of a criminal, which some courts insist on as an essential requisite for condemnation, has a similar origin;because in the mysterious tribunal of repentance the confession of sins is an essential part of the sacrament. This is the way men abuse the surest lights of revelation; and as these are the only ones which exist in times of ignorance, it is to them on all occasions that docile humanity turns, making of them the most absurd and far-fetched applications. Romillys first idea with respect to the reform of the criminal law was a sufficiently humble one. It was nothing more than to raise the amount of the value of the property, the theft of which should expose a man to death. Twelvepence, as fixed by the statute of Elizabeth, originally signified a much greater theft than it had come to signify after a lapse of two centuries. Romilly had at first no idea of removing the death penalty for theft; his only hope was to get it affixed to a graver theft than the larceny of a shilling. Yet even so he could not bring himself to consult with the judges on the subject of his intended bill, for he had not the least hope they would approve of the measure.

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. So great, however, did the changes appear to be, that Sir James Mackintosh declared, towards the close of his life, that it was as if he had lived in two different countries, such was the contrast between the past and the present. Yet Sir James died in the very year that the first Reform Bill passed, and it was not till after that event that any really great progress was made towards ameliorating the penal laws.

For instance, the injury to the public is no greater the hundredth time a man steals a rabbit than it is the first. The public may be interested in the prevention of poaching, but it is not interested in the person of the poacher, nor in the number of times he may have broken the law. The law claims to be impersonalto treat offences as they affect the State, not as they affect individuals; to act mechanically, coldly, and dispassionately. It has, therefore, simply to deal with the amount of injury done by each specific offence, and to affix to it its specific penalty, regardless of all matters of moral antecedents. The repetition of an offence may make its immorality the greater, but its[88] criminality remains the same, and this only is within the province of the law.