When Beccaria wrote against capital punishment, one great argument against its abolition was its practical universality. It had been abolished in ancient Egypt by king Sabaco,[28] in the best period of the Roman Republics by the Porcian law, and in the time of the Roman Empire by Calo-Johannes.[29] But these cases were too remote from modern times to lend much weight to the general argument. At that time Russia alone of all the countries in the world[44] had, from the accession of the Empress Elizabeth, afforded a practical example of the fact, that the general security of life is not diminished by the withdrawal of the protection of capital punishment. But since that time this truth has become less and less a theory or speculation, and it now rests on the positive experience of no inconsiderable portion of the world. In Tuscany, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Roumania, Saxony, Prussia, Belgium, and in ten of the United States of America, the death penalty has either been abolished or discontinued; and can it be thought that the people of those countries are so indifferent to the safety of their lives as to be content with a less efficient legal protection than is vouchsafed in countries where the protection is death?


Lastly, some have thought that the gravity of an acts sinfulness should be an element in the measure of crimes. But an impartial observer of the true relations between man and man, and between man[201] and God, will easily perceive the fallacy of this opinion. For the former relationship is one of equality; necessity alone, from the clash of passions and opposing interests, having given rise to the idea of the public utility, the basis of human justice. But the other relationship is one of dependence on a perfect Being and Creator, who has reserved to Himself alone the right of being at the same time legislator and judge, and can alone unite the two functions without bad effects. If He has decreed eternal punishments to those who disobey His omnipotence, what insect shall dare to take the place of Divine justice, or shall wish to avenge that Being, who is all-sufficient to Himself, who can receive from things no impression of pleasure nor of pain, and who alone of all beings acts without reaction? The degree of sinfulness in an action depends on the unsearchable wickedness of the heart, which cannot be known by finite beings without a revelation. How, then, found thereon a standard for the punishment of crimes? In such a case men might punish when God pardons, and pardon when God punishes. If men can act contrary to the Almighty by offending Him, they may also do so in the punishments they inflict. Another way to prevent crimes is to reward virtue. On this head I notice a general silence in the laws of all nations to this day. If prizes offered by academies to the discoverers of useful truths have caused the multiplication of knowledge and of good books, why should not virtuous actions also be multiplied, by prizes distributed from the munificence of the sovereign? The money of honour ever remains unexhausted and fruitful in the hands of the legislator who wisely distributes it.

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. Divine justice and natural justice are in their essence immutable and constant, because the relation between similar things is always the same; but human or political justice, being nothing more than a relation between a given action and a given state of society, may vary according as such action becomes necessary or useful to society; nor is such justice easily discernible, save by one who analyses the complex and very changeable relations of civil combinations. When once these principles, essentially distinct, become confused, there is no more hope of sound reasoning about public matters. It appertains to the theologian to fix the boundaries between the just and the unjust, in so far as regards the intrinsic goodness or wickedness of an act; to fix the relations between the politically just and unjust appertains to the publicist; nor can the one object cause any detriment to the other, when it is obvious how the virtue that is purely political ought to give place to that immutable virtue which emanates from God. CHAPTER XII. TORTURE.

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.

Whoever, therefore, shall wish to honour me with his criticisms, I would have begin with a thorough comprehension of the purpose of my worka purpose which, so far from diminishing legitimate authority, will serve to increase it, if opinion can effect more over mens minds than force, and if the mildness and humanity of the government shall justify it in the eyes of all men. The ill-conceived criticisms that have been published against this book are founded on confused notions, and compel me to interrupt for a moment the arguments I was addressing to my enlightened readers, in order to close once for all every door against the misapprehensions of timid bigotry or against the calumnies of malice and envy.

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.


Offences, therefore, against personal security and liberty are among the greatest of crimes. Under this head fall not only the assassinations and thefts of the common people, but those also committed by the nobles and magistrates, whose influence, acting with greater force and to a greater distance, destroys in those subject to them all ideas of justice and duty, and gives strength to those ideas of the right of the strongest, which are equally perilous ultimately to him who exercises no less than to him who endures it.