But if the interest of Beccarias chapter on Torture is now merely historical, an interest that is actual still attaches to his advocacy of the total abolition of capital punishment, this being the cause with which his name is most generally associated, and for which it is likely to be longest remembered. Previous writers, like Montaigne, if they deprecated the excess or severity of the death penalty, never thought of urging that it should be abolished altogether. 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.

There are some crimes which are at the same time of common occurrence and of difficult proof. In them the difficulty of proof is equivalent to a probability of innocence; and the harm of their impunity being so much the less to be considered as their frequency depends on principles other than the risk of punishment, the time for inquiry and the period of prescription ought both to be proportionately less. Yet[161] cases of adultery and pederasty, both of difficult proof, are precisely those in which, according to received principles, tyrannical presumptions of quasi-proofs and half-proofs are allowed to prevail (as if a man could be half-innocent or half-guilty, in other words, half-punishable or half-acquittable); in which torture exercises its cruel sway over the person of the accused, over the witnesses, and even over the whole family of an unfortunate wretch, according to the coldly wicked teaching of some doctors of law, who set themselves up as the rule and standard for judges to follow.

Since, therefore, there is more to fear from a punished than from an unpunished criminal, there is the less reason to regret the general impunity of crime. There is indeed a large class of crimes for the prevention of which more would be done, by leaving them to their natural consequences, and to the strong power against them which the general interests and moral feelings of mankind will always enforce, than by actual punishment. It is particularly crimes of dishonesty which are best punished by the mere fact of their discovery. By the Norwegian law if an offender holds any official place he is punished, not by fine or imprisonment, but by the loss of his office and all the privileges connected with it.[59] And if we imagine a country without any legal penalty at all for theft or dishonesty, thieves and their tribe would soon find their proper punishment, by that process of social shifting, which would drive them to the most deleterious or dangerous occupations of life even more effectually than it so drives them at present. The less dependence is placed on the penal sanctions of crime, the stronger do the moral restraints from it become.

The first consequence of these principles is, that the laws alone can decree punishments for crimes, and this authority can only rest with the legislator, who represents collective society as united by a social contract. No magistrate (who is part of society) can justly inflict punishments upon another member of the same society. But since a punishment that exceeds the legally fixed limit is the lawful punishment plus another one, a magistrate can, under no pretext of zeal or the public good, add to the penalty already decreed against a delinquent citizen. It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery,[243] according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life. But the means hitherto employed for this end are for the most part false and contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of men to a geometrical harmony without any irregularity or confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not prevent aberrations in the movements of the planets, so, in the infinite and contradictory attractions of pleasure and pain, disturbances and disorder cannot be prevented by human laws. Yet this is the chimera that narrow-minded men pursue, when they have power in their hands. To prohibit a number of indifferent acts is not to prevent the crimes that may arise from them, but it is to create new ones from them; it is to give capricious definitions of virtue and vice which are proclaimed as eternal and immutable in their nature. To what should we be reduced if everything had to be forbidden us which might tempt us to a crime? It would be necessary to deprive a man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to the commission of those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws; and if the likelihood of crimes is proportioned to the number of motives to commit them, an increase of the field of crimes is an increase of the likelihood of their commission. The majority of laws are nothing but[244] privileges, or a tribute paid by all to the convenience of some few.

Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.

It were superfluous to enlighten the matter more thoroughly by mentioning the numberless instances of innocent persons who have confessed themselves guilty from the agonies of torture; no nation, no age, but can mention its own; but men neither change their natures nor draw conclusions. There is no man who has ever raised his ideas beyond the common needs of life but runs occasionally towards Nature, who with secret and confused voice calls him to herself; but custom, that tyrant of human minds, draws him back and frightens him.

But it is probable that Beccaria owed his escape from persecution less to his apology than to the liberal protection of Count Firmian, who in his report of the affair to the Court of Vienna spoke of the Risposta as full of moderation and honourable to the character of its author. That the Count fully agreed with Beccarias opinions on torture is proved by a letter he wrote, in which he declares himself to have been much pleased with what Beccaria had said on the subject. His vanity, he said, had been flattered by it, for his own feelings about torture had always been the same. The book seemed to him written with much love of humanity and much imagination. Beccaria always acknowledged his gratitude to the Count for his action in this matter. To Morellet he[18] wrote, that he owed the Count his tranquillity, in having protected his book; and when, a few years later, he published his book on Style, he dedicated it to Firmian as his benefactor, thanking him for having scattered the clouds that envy and ignorance had gathered thickly over his head, and for having protected one whose only object had been to declare with the greatest caution and respect the interests of humanity.


Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful[204] instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.

What are the pretexts by which secret accusations and punishments are justified? Are they the public welfare, the security and maintenance of the form of government? But how strange a constitution is that, where he who has force on his side, and opinion, which is even stronger than force, is afraid of every citizen! Is then the indemnity of the accuser the excuse? In that case the laws do not sufficiently defend him; and shall there be subjects stronger than their sovereign? Or is it to save the informer from infamy? What! secret calumny be fair and lawful, and an open one deserving of punishment! Is it, then, the nature of the crime? If indifferent actions, or even useful actions, are called crimes, then of course accusations and trials can never be secret enough. But how can there be crimes, that is, public injuries, unless the publicity of this example, by a public trial, be at the same time[144] the interest of all men? I respect every government, and speak of none in particular. Circumstances are sometimes such that to remove an evil may seem utter ruin when it is inherent in a national system. But had I to dictate new laws in any forgotten corner of the universe, my hand would tremble and all posterity would rise before my eyes before I would authorise such a custom as that of secret accusations.

There is a remarkable contradiction between the civil laws, which set so jealous and supreme a guard upon individual life and property, and the laws of so-called honour, which set opinion above everything. This word honour is one of those that have served as the basis for long and brilliant argumentations, without any fixed or permanent idea being attached to it. How miserable is the condition of human minds, more distinctly cognisant of the remotest and least important ideas about the movements of the heavenly bodies, than of those near and important moral notions, which are ever fluctuating and confused, according as the winds of passion impel them and a well-guided ignorance receives and transmits them! But the seeming paradox will vanish, if one considers, that, as objects become confused when too near the eyes, so the too great propinquity of moral ideas easily causes the numerous simple ideas which compose them to become blended together, to the confusion of those clear lines of demarcation demanded by the geometrical spirit, which would fain measure exactly the phenomena of human sensibility. And the wonder will vanish altogether from the impartial student of human affairs, who will suspect that so great a moral machinery and so many restraints are perchance not needed, in order to render men happy and secure.

DAlembert, Diderot, Helvetius, Buffon, Hume, illustrious names, which no one can hear without emotion! Your immortal works are my continual study, the object of my occupation by day, of my meditation in the silence of night. Full of the truth which you teach, how could I ever have burned incense to worshipped error, or debased myself to lie to posterity? I find myself rewarded beyond my hopes[6] in the signs of esteem I have received from these celebrated persons, my masters. Convey to each of these, I pray you, my most humble thanks, and assure them that I feel for them that profound and true respect which a feeling soul entertains for truth and virtue.