From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the[166] minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal. What is the political object of punishments? The intimidation of other men. But what shall we say of the secret and private tortures which the tyranny of custom exercises alike upon the guilty and the innocent? It is important, indeed, that no open crime shall pass unpunished; but the public exposure of a criminal whose crime was hidden in darkness is utterly useless. An evil that has been done and cannot be undone can only be punished by civil society in so far as it may affect others with the hope of impunity. If it be true that there are a greater number of men who either from fear or virtue respect the laws than of those who transgress them, the risk of torturing an innocent man should be estimated according to the probability that any man will have been more likely, other things being equal, to have respected than to have despised the laws.

[32] The multiplication of the human race, slight in the abstract, but far in excess of the means afforded by nature, barren and deserted as it originally was, for the satisfaction of mens ever increasing wants, caused the first savages to associate together. The first unions necessarily led to others to oppose them, and so the state of war passed from individuals to nations. There is also a fourth consequence of the above principles: that the right to interpret penal laws cannot possibly rest with the criminal judges, for the[126] very reason that they are not legislators. The judges have not received the laws from our ancestors as a family tradition, as a legacy that only left to posterity the duty of obeying them, but they receive them from living society, or from the sovereign that represents it and is the lawful trustee of the actual result of mens collective wills; they receive them, not as obligations arising from an ancient oath[65] (null, because it bound wills not then in existence, and iniquitous, because it reduced men from a state of society to that of a flock), but as the result of the tacit or expressed oath made to the sovereign by the united wills of living subjects, as chains necessary for curbing and regulating the disorders caused by private interests. This is the natural and real source of the authority of the laws.


Beccaria himself was ready enough to refer all his thoughts to French inspiration, and to lay aside all claim to originality, with respect to which DAlembert once wrote to him: A man such as you has no need of a master, still less of a master like myself. You are like the Titus Curtius of Tacitus, ex se natus, nor have your offspring any grandparent. A father like yourself is enough for them.


The first class of crimesthat is, the worst, because they are the most injurious to societyare those known as crimes of high treason. Only tyranny and ignorance, which confound words and ideas of the clearest meaning, can apply this name, and consequently the heaviest punishment, to different kinds of crimes, thus rendering men, as in a thousand other cases, the victims of a word. Every crime, be it ever so private, injures society; but every crime does not aim at its immediate destruction. Moral, like physical actions, have their limited sphere of activity, and are differently circumscribed, like all the movements of nature, by time and space; and therefore only a sophistical interpretation, which is generally the philosophy of slavery, can confound what eternal truth has distinguished by immutable differences.

The object of examining an accused man is the ascertainment of truth. But if this truth is difficult to discover from a mans air, demeanour, or countenance, even when he is quiet, much more difficult will it be to discover from a man upon whose face all the signs, whereby most men, sometimes in spite of themselves, express the truth, are distorted by pain. Every violent action confuses and causes to disappear those trifling differences between objects, by which one may sometimes distinguish the true from the false.

The very success of Beccarias work has so accustomed us to its result that we are apt to regard it, as men regard a splendid cathedral in their native town, with very little recognition of its claims to admiration. The work is there, they see it, they live under its shadow; they are even ready to boast of it; but[30] what to them is the toil and risk of its builders, or the care and thought of its architects? It may be said that this indifference is the very consummation Beccaria would most have desired, as it is the most signal proof of the success of his labour. So signal, indeed, has been that success, that already the atrocities which men in those days accepted as among the unalterable conditions of their existence, or resigned themselves to as the necessary safeguards of society, have become so repulsive to the worlds memory, that men have agreed to hide them from their historical consciousness by seldom reading, writing, or speaking of their existence. And this is surely a fact to be remembered with hopefulness, when we hear an evil like war with all its attendant atrocities, defended nowadays by precisely the same arguments which little more than a hundred years ago were urged on behalf of torture, but which have proved nevertheless insufficient to keep it in existence.

Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long[9] and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that philosophical indolence which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.[6]

The death of a citizen can only be deemed necessary for two reasons. The first is when, though deprived of his personal freedom, he has still such connections and power as threaten the national security; when his existence is capable of producing a dangerous revolution in the established form of government. The death of a citizen becomes then necessary when the nation is recovering or losing its liberty, or in a time of anarchy, when confusion takes the place of laws; but in times when the laws hold undisturbed sway, when the form of government corresponds with the wishes of a united nation, and is defended internally and externally by force, and by opinion which is perhaps even stronger than force, where the supreme power rests only with the real sovereign, and riches serve to purchase pleasures but not places, I see no necessity for destroying a citizen, except when his death might be the real and only restraint for diverting others from committing crimes; this latter[171] case constituting the second reason for which one may believe capital punishment to be both just and necessary.