Capital punishment becomes a spectacle for the majority of mankind, and a subject for compassion and abhorrence for others; the minds of the spectators are more filled with these feelings than with the wholesome terror the law pretends to inspire. But in moderate and continuing penalties the latter is the predominant feeling, because it is the only one. The limit, which the legislator should affix to the severity of penalties, appears to lie in the first signs of a feeling[173] of compassion becoming uppermost in the minds of the spectators, when they look upon the punishment rather as their own than as that of the criminal. There is no doubt that Beccaria always had a strong preference for the contemplative as opposed to the practical and active life, and that but for his friend Pietro Verri he would probably never have distinguished himself at all. He would have said with Plato that a wise man should regard life as a storm, and hide himself behind a wall till it be overpast. He almost does say this in his essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination, published soon after the Crimes and Punishments. He advises his reader to stand aside and look on at the rest of mankind as they run about in their blind confusion; to make his relations with them as few as possible; and if he will do them any good, to do it at that distance which will prevent them from upsetting him or drawing him away in their own vortex. Let him in happy contemplation enjoy in silence the few moments that separate his birth from his disappearance. Let him leave men to fight,[12] to hope, and to die; and with a smile both at himself and at them, let him repose softly on that enlightened indifference with regard to human things which will not deprive him of the pleasure of being just and beneficent, but which will spare him from those useless troubles and changes from evil to good that vex the greater part of mankind.

The greater the number of those who understand and have in their hands the sacred code of the laws, the fewer will be the crimes committed; for it is beyond all doubt that ignorance and uncertainty of punishments lend assistance to the eloquence of the passions. Yet what shall we think of mankind, when we reflect, that such a condition of the laws is the inveterate custom of a large part of cultivated and enlightened Europe?

[22] There was little of eventfulness in Beccarias life, and the only episode in it of interest was his visit to Paris in 1766. Thither he and his friend Pietro had been invited by Morellet, in the name of the philosophers at Paris, and thither he started in October 1766; not with Pietro, who could not leave Milan, but with Alessandro Verri, on a journey which was to include London as well as Paris, and was to occupy in all a period of six months.

In revenges or punishments, says Hobbes, men ought not to look at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow, whereby we are forbidden to inflict punishment with any other design than for the correction of the offender and the admonition of others. And over and over again the same thing has been said, till it has come to be a commonplace in the philosophy of law, that the object of punishment is to reform and deter. As was once said by a great legal authority, We do not hang you because you stole a horse, but that horses may not be stolen.[42] Punishment by this theory is a means to an end, not an end in itself. 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.

In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. I have become acquainted, says a released convict, with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls. The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the mans vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.[56] It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder.

Romilly also injured his cause by a pamphlet on the criminal law, in which he criticised severely the doctrines of Paley. So strongly was this resented, that in 1810 his bill to abolish capital punishment for stealing forty shillings from a dwelling-house did not even pass the Commons, being generally opposed, as it was by Windham, because the maintenance of Paleys reputation was regarded as a great object of national concern.[37] That is to say, men voted not so much against the bill as against the author of a heresy against Paley.

Not only is it the general interest that crimes should not be committed, but that they should be rare in proportion to the evils they cause to society. The more opposed therefore that crimes are to the public welfare, and the more numerous the incentives to them, the stronger should be the repellent obstacles. This principle accordingly establishes the necessity of a certain proportion between crimes and punishments.

By the present English law a person convicted of more offences than one may be sentenced for each offence separately, the punishment of each one in[106] succession taking effect on the expiration of the other. By this law (which the Criminal Code Commissioners propose to alter) imprisonment may be spread over the whole of a lifetime. On this point the Chinese law again offers a model, for it enacts that when two or more offences are proved against a man, they shall all be estimated together, and the punishment of all the lesser offences be included in that of the principal charge, not in addition to it So also if the offences are charged at different times, and the punishment of one has been already discharged, there is no further punishment for the other subsequent charges, unless they be charges of greater criminality, in which case only the difference between the punishments can be legally incurred.[63] But this of course presupposes a definite scale of crimes and punishments.


But whether the international extradition of criminals be useful I would not venture to decide, until laws more in conformity with the needs of humanity, until milder penalties, and until the emancipation of law from the caprice of mere opinion, shall have given[194] security to oppressed innocence and hated virtue; until tyranny shall have been confined, by the force of universal reason which ever more and more unites the interests of kings and subjects, to the vast plains of Asia; however much the conviction of finding nowhere a span of earth where real crimes were pardoned might be the most efficacious way of preventing their occurrence.