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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.

It certainly should moderate our reverence for ancestral wisdom to find even a man like Fielding, the novelist, speaking, in his Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex, of the pillory and the loss of a mans ears as an extremely mild punishment for a bad case of libel, or declaring our punishments of that time to be the mildest and most void of terror of any other in the known world. Yet Fielding recognised several of the true principles of punishment. He attributed the increase of crime to the great abuse of pardons, which, he said, had brought many more men to the gallows than they had saved from it. He also advocated the diminution of the number of executions, their greater privacy and solemnity, whilst he recommended their following as closely as possible on conviction, that pity for the criminal might be lost in detestation for his crime.[33] It would also seem to demand no great insight to perceive that a voluntary intention must be a universal attribute of a criminal action. No one would think of punishing a man who in his sleep killed another, although, if the injury to society be the measure of punishment, his crime is equivalent to intentional homicide. Yet at Athens an involuntary murderer was banished until he could, give satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased; and in China, though the penal code generally separates intentional from accidental crimes, anyone who kills a near relation by accident or commits certain kinds[72] of arson by accident undergoes different degrees of banishment and a fixed number of bamboo strokes.[40]

Who can protect himself from calumny, when it is armed by the strongest shield of tyranny, secrecy? What sort of government can that ever be where in every subject a ruler suspects an enemy, and is obliged for the sake of the general tranquillity to rob each individual of its possession?

These truths were recognised by the Roman legislators, for they inflicted torture only upon slaves, who in law had no personality. They have been adopted by England, a nation, the glory of whose literature, the superiority of whose commerce and wealth, and consequently of whose power, and the examples of whose virtue and courage leave us no doubt as to the goodness of her laws. Torture has also been abolished in Sweden; it has been abolished by one of the wisest monarchs of Europe, who, taking philosophy with him to the throne, has made himself the friend and legislator of his subjects, rendering them equal and free in their dependence on the laws, the sole kind of equality[157] and liberty that reasonable men can ask for in the present condition of things. Nor has torture been deemed necessary in the laws which regulate armies, composed though they are for the most part of the dregs of different countries, and for that reason more than any other class of men the more likely to require it. A strange thing, for whoever forgets the power of the tyranny exercised by custom, that pacific laws should be obliged to learn from minds hardened to massacre and bloodshed the most humane method of conducting trials. Thus before his death Beccaria saw torture almost entirely abolished in Europe, and a general tendency spreading to follow the spirit of the changes he advocated in other details of criminal law. Probably no other theorist ever lived to witness so complete an adoption of his principles in practice, or so thorough a transformation of the system he attacked. It is possible that he but gave body and voice to ideas of change already widely prevalent in his time; but the[38] merit of a man belongs none the less to himself, who changes the instability of public opinion into an active and solid force, and who gives distinct expression to the longings vaguely felt by a multitude.

No man has gratuitously parted with a portion of his own liberty with a view to the public good; that is a chimera which only exists in romances. Each one of us would wish, if it were possible, that the[122] covenants which bind others should not bind himself. There is no man but makes himself the central object of all the combinations of the globe.

Is death a penalty really useful and necessary for the security and good order of society?

It was by the advice of Scarlett, Lord Abinger, that he ventured to aim at the repeal of all statutes punishing mere theft with death; but, deeming it hopeless to urge their abolition all at once, he resolved to begin with that famous statute of Elizabeth which made it a capital crime to steal a handkerchief or anything else from the person of another which was of the value of a shilling. His bill to effect this[60] passed both Houses the same year it was introduced (1808), in spite of the strong opposition of the great legal dignitaries in either House. The statute was based, said Judge Burton, on the experience of two and a half centuries. The alternative punishment of transportation for seven years, said the Attorney-General, would be too short; it should be for more years than seven, if not for life. If any change of punishment were necessary, said Lord Ellenborough, it should be transportation for life.

Even the idea of public utility as the final test and standard of morality is derived from Beccaria, and the famous expression, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, occurs, in capital letters, in the very first page of the Delitti e delle Pene.[30] Bentham himself fully acknowledged this. Priestley was the first, he says, unless it was Beccaria, who taught my lips to pronounce this sacred truth: that the[47] greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and happiness. And with reference to his idea of the measurable value of different pains and pleasures, he says: It was from Beccarias little treatise on Crimes and Punishments that I drew, as I well remember, the first hint of this principle, by which the precision and clearness and incontestableness of mathematical calculations are introduced for the first time into the field of morals.

Two other fatal consequences flow from the cruelty of punishments, and are contrary to their very purpose, the prevention of crimes. The first is, that it is not so easy to preserve the essential proportion between crime and punishment, because, however much a studied cruelty may diversify its forms, none of them can go beyond the extreme limit of endurance which is a condition of the human organisation and sensibility. When once this extreme limit is attained, it would be impossible to invent such a corresponding increase of punishment for still more injurious and atrocious crimes as would be necessary to prevent them. The other consequence is, that impunity itself arises from the severity of punishments. Men are restrained within limits both in good and evil; and a sight too atrocious for humanity can only be a passing rage, not a constant system, such as the laws ought to be; if the latter are really cruel, either they are changed, or themselves give rise to a fatal impunity.

We have seen that the true measure of crimes is the injury done to society. This is one of those palpable truths which, however little dependent on quadrants or telescopes for their discovery, and fully within the reach of any ordinary intelligence, are yet, by a marvellous combination of circumstances, only recognised clearly and firmly by some few thinkers, belonging to every nationality and to every age. But Asiatic ideas, and passions clothed with authority and power, have, generally by imperceptible movements, sometimes by violent assaults on the timid credulity of mankind, dissipated those simple notions, which perhaps formed the first philosophy of primitive communities, and to which the enlightenment of this age seems likely to reconduct us, but to do so with that greater sureness, which can be gained from an exact[200] investigation into things, from a thousand unhappy experiences, and from the very obstacles that militate against it.