An error, not less common than it is contrary to the object of societythat is, to the consciousness of personal securityis leaving a magistrate to be the arbitrary executor of the laws, free at his pleasure to imprison a citizen, to deprive a personal enemy of his liberty on frivolous pretexts, or to leave a friend unpunished in spite of the strongest proofs of his guilt. Imprisonment is a punishment which, unlike every other, must of necessity precede the declaration of guilt; but this distinctive character does not deprive it of the other essential of punishment, namely, that the law alone shall determine the cases under which it shall be merited. It is for the law, therefore, to point out the amount of evidence of a crime which shall justify the detention of the accused, and his subjection to examination and punishment. For such detention there may be sufficient proofs in common[133] report, in a mans flight, in a non-judicial confession, or in the confession of an accomplice; in a mans threats against or constant enmity with the person injured; in all the facts of the crime, and similar indications. But these proofs should be determined by the laws, not by the judges, whose decisions, when they are not particular applications of a general maxim in a public code, are always adverse to political liberty. The more that punishments are mitigated, that misery and hunger are banished from prisons, that pity and mercy are admitted within their iron doors, and are set above the inexorable and hardened ministers of justice, the slighter will be the evidences of guilt requisite for the legal detention of the suspected.

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.

Had I to address nations still destitute of the light of religion, I would say that there is yet another considerable difference between adultery and other crimes. For it springs from the abuse of a constant and universal human impulse, an impulse anterior to, nay, the cause of the institution of society; whereas other crimes, destructive of society, derive their origin rather from momentary passions than from a natural impulse. To anyone cognisant of history and his kind, such an impulse will seem to be equivalent in the same climate to a constant quantity; and if this be so, those laws and customs which seek to diminish the sum-total will be useless or dangerous, because their effect will be to burthen one half of humanity with its own needs and those of others; but those laws, on the contrary, will be the wisest, which following, so to speak, the gentle inclination of the plain, divide the total amount, causing it to ramify into so many equal and small portions, that aridity or overflowing are equally prevented everywhere. Conjugal fidelity is always proportioned to the number and to the freedom of marriages. Where marriages are governed by hereditary prejudices, or[229] bound or loosened by parental power, there the chains are broken by secret intrigue, in despite of ordinary morality, which, whilst conniving at the causes of the offence, makes it its duty to declaim against the results. But there is no need of such reflections for the man who, living in the light of true religion, has higher motives to correct the force of natural effects. Such a crime is of so instantaneous and secret commission, so concealed by the very veil the laws have drawn round it (a veil necessary, indeed, but fragile, and one that enhances, instead of diminishing, the value of the desired object), the occasions for it are so easy, and the consequences so doubtful, that the legislator has it more in his power to prevent than to punish it. As a general rule, in every crime which by its nature must most frequently go unpunished, the penalty attached to it becomes an incentive. It is a quality of our imagination, that difficulties, if they are not insurmountable nor too difficult, relatively to the mental energy of the particular person, excite the imagination more vividly, and place the object desired in larger perspective; for they serve as it were as so many barriers to prevent an erratic and flighty fancy from quitting hold of its object; and, while they compel the imagination to consider the latter in all its bearings, it attaches itself more closely to the pleasant[230] side, to which our mind most naturally inclines, than to the painful side, which it places at a distance.

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. Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example,[50] Goldsmith could not avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.[31] Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!

These are some of the difficulties of the subject, which teach us the necessity of constant open-mindedness with regard to all ideas or practices connected with criminal law. But, would we further examine our established notions, we should consider a statement from Hobbes which goes to the very root of the theory of punishment.

From all that has gone before a general theorem may be deduced, of great utility, though little comformable to custom, that common lawgiver of nations. The theorem is this: In order that every punishment may not be an act of violence, committed by one man or by many against a single individual, it ought to be above all things public, speedy, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportioned to its crime, dictated by the laws.


Some crimes tend directly to the destruction of society or to the sovereign who represents it; others affect individual citizens, by imperilling their life, their property, or their honour; whilst others, again, are actions contrary to the positive or negative obligations which bind every individual to the public weal.

A man accused of a crime, imprisoned and acquitted, ought to bear no mark of disgrace. How many Romans, accused of the gravest crimes and then found innocent, were reverenced by the people and honoured with magisterial positions! For what reason, then, is the lot of a man innocently accused so different in our own times? Because, in the criminal system now in vogue, the idea of force and might is stronger in mens minds than the idea of justice; because accused and convicted are thrown in confusion into the same dungeon; because imprisonment is rather a mans punishment than his mere custody; and because the two forces which should be united are separated from[134] one another, namely, the internal force, which protects the laws, and the external force, which defends the throne and the nation. Were they united, the former, through the common sanction of the laws, would possess in addition a judicial capacity, although independent of that possessed by the supreme judicial power; and the glory that accompanies the pomp and ceremony of a military body would remove the infamy, which, like all popular sentiments, is more attached to the manner than the thing, as is proved by the fact that military prisons are not regarded in public estimation as so disgraceful as civil ones. There still remain among our people, in their customs and in their laws (always a hundred years, in point of merit, in arrear of the actual enlightenment of a nation), there still remain, I say, the savage impressions and fierce ideas of our ancestors of the North.

It was translated into English long ago; but the change in the order of the several chapters and paragraphs, which the work underwent before it was clothed in its final dress, is so great, that the new translation and the old one really constitute quite different books.