CHAPTER XI. OATHS. But perhaps the best illustrations of the tendency of actions to retain the infamy, attached to them by a past condition of fanatical punishments, are the cases of suicide and child-killing. Could a Greek of the classical period, or a cultivated historian like Plutarch reappear on earth, nothing would strike him more vividly than the modern conception or recent treatment of these crimes. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver, met his death by voluntary starvation, from the persuasion that even the deaths of lawgivers should be of use to mankind, and serve them with an example of virtue and greatness; and Seneca held that it was the part of a wise man not to live as long as he could but as long as he ought. With what astonishment, then, would not Plutarch or Seneca read of recent European punishments for suicideof Lady Hales[75] losing the estate she was jointly possessed of with her husband, the Judge, because he drowned himself; of the stake and the cross-roads; of the English law which still regards suicide as murder, and condemns one of two men who in a mutual attempt at self-destruction survives the other to the punishment of the ordinary murderer! Is it possible, he would ask, that an action which was once regarded as among the noblest a man could perform, has really come to be looked upon with any other feeling than one of pity or a sad respect?

But why does this crime never entail disgrace upon its author, seeing that it is a theft against the prince, and consequently against the nation? I answer, that offences which men do not consider can be committed against themselves do not interest them enough to produce public indignation against their perpetrator. Smuggling is an offence of this character. Men in general, on whom remote consequences make very feeble impressions, do not perceive the harm that smuggling can do them, nay, often they enjoy a present advantage from it. They only perceive the injury done to the sovereign; they are not interested, therefore, in withdrawing their favour from a smuggler as much as they are in doing so from a man who commits a theft in private life, who forges a signature, or brings upon them other evils. The principle is self-evident, that every sensitive being only interests himself in the evils which he knows. This crime arises from the law itself; since the benefit it promises increases with the increase of the import duty, and therefore the temptation and the facility of committing it increases with the circumference of territory to be guarded and the small size of the prohibited wares. The penalty of losing both the prohibited goods, and whatever effects are found with them, is most just; but its efficacy will be greater in proportion as the import duty is lower, because men only incur risks relative to the advantage derivable from the prosperous issue of their undertaking. But (he goes on) since it would be an absurd folly to expect this general revolution, this general reconstruction, which could only be effected by very violent means, such as would be at least a very great misfortune for the present generation, and hold out an uncertain prospect of compensation for the next one, every speculative work, like the Dei[20] Delitti e delle Pene, enters into the category of Utopias, of Platonic Republics and other ideal governments; which display, indeed, the wit, the humanity, and the goodness of their authors, but which never have had nor ever will have any influence on human affairs.


Our laws prohibit suggestive (leading) questions in a lawsuit: those, that is (according to the doctors of law), which, instead of applying, as they should do,[145] to the genus in the circumstances of a crime, refer to the species; those, in other words, which from their immediate connection with a crime suggest to the accused a direct answer. Questions, according to the criminal lawyers, ought, so to speak, to envelop the main fact spirally and never to attack it in a direct line. The reasons for this method are, either that an answer may not be suggested to the accused which may place him face to face with the charge against him, or perhaps because it seems unnatural for him directly to criminate himself. But, whichever of these reasons it may be, the contradiction is remarkable between the existence of such a custom and the legal authorisation of torture; for what interrogatory can be more suggestive than pain? The former reason applies to the question of torture, because pain will suggest to a strong man obstinate silence, in order that he may exchange the greater penalty for the lesser, whilst it will suggest to a weak man confession, in order that he may escape from present torment, which has more influence over him than pain which is to come. The other reason evidently applies too, for if a special question leads a man to confess against natural right, the agonies of torture will more easily do the same. But men are more governed by the difference of names than by that of things.

In proportion as punishments become milder, clemency and pardon become less necessary. Happy the nation in which their exercise should be baneful! Clemency, therefore, that virtue, which has sometimes made up in a sovereign for failings in all the other duties of the throne, ought to be excluded in a perfect system of legislation, where punishments are mild and the method of trial regular and expeditious. This truth will appear a hard one to anybody living in the present chaotic state of the criminal law, where the necessity of pardon and favours accords with the absurdity of the laws and with the severity of sentences of punishment. This right of pardon is indeed the fairest prerogative of the throne, the most desirable attribute of sovereignty; it is, however, the tacit mark of disapproval that the beneficent dispensers of the public happiness exhibit towards a code, which with all its imperfections claims in its favour the prejudice of ages, the voluminous and imposing array of innumerable commentators, the weighty apparatus of unending formalities, and the adhesion of those persons of half-learning who, though less feared than real philosophers, are really more dangerous. But let it be remembered that clemency is the virtue of[191] the maker, not of the executor, of the laws; that it should be conspicuous in the code of laws rather than in particular judgments; that the showing to men, that crimes may be pardoned and that punishment is not their necessary consequence, encourages the hope of impunity, and creates the belief that sentences of condemnation, which might be remitted and are not, are rather violent exhibitions of force than emanations of justice. What shall be said then when the sovereign grants a pardon, that is, public immunity to an individual, and when a private act of unenlightened kindness constitutes a public decree of impunity? Let the laws therefore be inexorable and their administrators in particular cases inexorable, but let the law-maker be mild, merciful, and humane. Let him found his edifice, as a wise architect, on the basis of self-love; let the general interest be the sum of the interests of each, and he will no longer be constrained, by partial laws and violent remedies to separate at every moment the public welfare from that of individuals, and to raise the appearance of public security on fear and mistrust. As a profound and feeling philosopher let him allow men, that is, his brethren, to enjoy in peace that small share of happiness which is given them to enjoy in this corner of the universe, in that immense system established by the First Cause, by Him Who Is.

The first trace of Beccarias influence in England appeared in the first edition of Blackstones Commentaries, of which the book on the Criminal Laws[48] was published the very next year after the appearance of the Italian treatise. That Blackstone was well acquainted with it is proved by his frequent reference to it in treating of crimes. From Beccaria he argues that the certainty of punishments is more effectual than their severity, and finds it absurd to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity. Blackstone was also the first professional lawyer to find fault with the frequency of capital punishment in England, and to point out as a melancholy truth the presence of 160 actions in the statute book which were felonies without benefit of clergy.

Even when Paris was reached, and Beccaria and Alessandro were warmly welcomed by DAlembert, Morellet, Diderot, and Baron Holbach, the homesickness remained. You would not believe, says Beccaria to his wife, the welcomes, the politeness, the demonstrations of friendship and esteem, which they have shown to me and my companion. Diderot, Baron Holbach, and DAlembert especially enchant us. The latter is a superior man, and most simple at the same time. Diderot displays enthusiasm and good humour in all he does. In short, nothing is wanting to me but yourself. All do their best to please me, and those who do so are the greatest men in Europe. All of them deign to listen to me, and no one shows the slightest air of superiority. Yet[24] Morellet tells us that even on arrival Beccaria was so absorbed in melancholy, that it was difficult to get four consecutive words from his mouth.


Some persons have maintained that a crime, that is, an action contrary to the laws, is punishable wherever committed, as if the character of subject[193] were indelible, or, in other words, synonymous with, nay, worse than, the character of slave; as if a man could be the subject of one kingdom and the resident of another, or as if his actions could without contradiction be subordinate to two sovereign powers and to two legal systems often contradictory. So some think that a cruel action done, say, at Constantinople is punishable at Paris, for the abstract reason that he who offends humanity deserves to have collective humanity for his enemy, and merits universal execration; as if judges were the avengers of human sensibility in general, and not rather of the covenants that bind men together. The place of punishment is the place of the crime, because there, and there only, is it a compulsory duty to injure an individual, to prevent an injury to the public. A villain, but one who has not broken the covenants of the society of which he was not a member, may be an object of fear, and for that reason be expelled and exiled by the superior power of that society; but he cannot be legally and formally punished, since it is for the laws to avenge, not the intrinsic malice of particular actions, but the violation of compacts.

This useless prodigality of punishments, by which men have never been made any better, has driven me to examine whether the punishment of death be really useful and just in a well organised government. What kind of right can that be which men claim for the slaughter of their fellow-beings? Certainly not that right which is the source of sovereignty and of laws. For these are nothing but the sum-total of the smallest portions of individual liberty, and represent the general will, that is, the aggregate of individual wills. But who ever wished to leave to other men the option of killing him? How in the least possible sacrifice of each mans liberty can there be a sacrifice of the greatest of all goods, namely, of life? And if there could be that sacrifice, how would such a principle accord with the other, that a man is not the[170] master of his own life? Yet he must have been so, could he have given to himself or to society as a body this right of killing him.