Laws are the conditions under which men, leading independent and isolated lives, joined together in society, when tired of living in a perpetual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty which the uncertainty of its tenure rendered useless. Of this liberty they voluntarily sacrificed a part, in order to enjoy the remainder in security and quiet. The sum-total of all these portions of liberty, sacrificed for the good of each individually, constitutes the sovereignty of a nation, and the sovereign is the lawful trustee and administrator of these portions. But, besides forming this trust-fund, or deposit, it was necessary to protect it from the encroachments of individuals, whose aim it ever is not only to recover from the fund their own deposit, but to avail themselves of that contributed by others. Sensible motives, were therefore wanted to divert the despotic will of the individual from re-plunging into their primitive chaos the laws of society.[123] Such motives were found in punishments, established against transgressors of the laws; and I call them sensible motives, because experience has shown that the majority of men adopt no fixed rules of conduct, nor avoid that universal principle of dissolution, observable alike in the moral as in the physical world, save by reason of motives which directly strike the senses and constantly present themselves to the mind, counterbalancing the strong impressions of private passions, opposed as they are to the general welfare; not eloquence, nor declamations, nor the most sublime truths have ever sufficed to curb the passions for any length of time, when excited by the lively force of present objects.

Lastly, the surest but most difficult means of preventing crimes is to improve educationa subject too vast for present discussion, and lying beyond the limits of my treatise; a subject, I will also say, too intimately connected with the nature of government for it ever to be aught but a barren field, only cultivated here and there by a few philosophers, down to the remotest ages of public prosperity. A great man, who enlightens the humanity that persecutes him, has shown in detail the chief educational maxims of real utility to mankind; namely, that it consists less in a barren multiplicity of subjects than in their choice selection; in substituting originals for copies in the moral as in the physical phenomena presented by chance or intention to the fresh minds of youth; in inclining them to virtue by the easy path of feeling;[251] and in deterring them from evil by the sure path of necessity and disadvantage, not by the uncertain method of command, which never obtains more than a simulated and transitory obedience. The aim of punishment is not to torment sensitive beings.

The reader of this treatise will perceive that I have omitted all reference to a certain class of crime, which has deluged Europe with human blood; a crime which raised those fatal piles, where living human bodies served as food for the flames, and where the blind multitude sought a pleasant spectacle and a sweet harmony from the low dull groans, emitted by wretched sufferers from volumes of black smoke, the smoke of human limbs, whilst their bones and still palpitating entrails were scorched and consumed by the flames. But reasonable men will see that the place, the age, and the subject suffer me not to inquire into the nature of such a crime. It would be too long and remote from my subject to show, how a perfect uniformity of thought ought, contrary to the practice of many countries, to be a necessity in a State; how opinions, which only differ by the most subtle and imperceptible degrees, and are altogether beyond the reach of human intelligence, can[232] yet convulse society, when one of them is not legally authorised in preference to the others; and how the nature of opinions is such, that, whilst some become clearer by virtue of their conflict and opposition, (those that are true floating and surviving, but those that are false sinking to oblivion,) others again, with no inherent self-support, require to be clothed with authority and power. Too long would it be to prove, that howsoever hateful may seem the government of force over human minds, with no other triumphs to boast of but dissimulation and debasement, and howsoever contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and fraternity, commanded alike by reason and the authority we most venerate, it is yet necessary and indispensable. All this should be taken as clearly proved and conformable to the true interests of humanity, if there be anyone who, with recognised authority, acts accordingly. I speak only of crimes that spring from the nature of humanity and the social compact; not of sins, of which even the temporal punishments should be regulated by other principles than those of a narrow philosophy. I do not pretend to diminish the just wrath these crimes deserve; but, in indicating their sources, I think myself justified in drawing one general conclusion, and that is, that no punishment for a crime can[231] be called exactly justthat is, necessaryso long as the law has not adopted the best possible means, in the circumstances of a country, to prevent the crimes it punishes.

Count Pietro Verri was the son of Gabriel, who was distinguished alike for his legal knowledge and high position in Milan. At the house of Pietro, Beccaria and the other friends used to meet for the discussion and study of political and social questions. Alessandro, the younger brother of Pietro, held the office of Protector of Prisoners, an office which consisted in visiting the prisons, listening to the grievances of the inmates, and discovering, if possible, reasons for their defence or for mercy. The distressing sights he[10] was witness of in this capacity are said to have had the most marked effect upon him; and there is no doubt that this fact caused the attention of the friends to be so much directed to the state of the penal laws. It is believed to have been at the instigation of the two brothers that Beccaria undertook the work which was destined to make his name so famous.

English philosophy and legislation, therefore, owe enough to Beccaria for his treatise never to be forgotten among us. Standing, as it does, in reference to law as Bacons Novum Organon to science, or Descartes Principia to philosophy, and representing a return to first principles and rejection of mere precedent in the matter of penal laws, it will never fail to gratify those who, with little admiration for law in the concrete, can yet find pleasure in studying it in the abstract. Most men will turn readily from a system built up, as our own is, of unintelligible distinctions, and based on authority rather than on experience, to a system where no distinctions exist save those which are derived from the nature of things and are founded on the real differences that distinguish the moral actions of mankind.

In such a zigzag path has our penal legislation been feeling, and is still feeling, its way, with evident misgiving of that principle of repression, as false as it is old, that an increase of crime can only be met by an increase of punishment.

I said that the promptness of punishment is more useful, because the shorter the interval of time between the punishment and the misdeed, the stronger and the more lasting in the human mind is the association of these ideas, crime and punishment, so that insensibly they come to be considered, the one as the cause and the other as its necessary and inevitable consequence. It is a proved fact that the association of ideas is the cement of the whole fabric of the human intellect, and that without it pleasure and pain would be isolated and ineffective feelings. The further removed men are from general ideas and universal principles, that is, the more commonplace they are, the more they act by their immediate and nearest associations, to the neglect of remoter and more complex ones, the latter being of service only[187] to men strongly impassioned for a given object of pursuit, inasmuch as the light of attention illuminates a single object, whilst it leaves the others obscure. They are also of service to minds of a higher quality, because, having acquired the habit of running rapidly over many subjects at a time, they possess facility in placing in contrast with one another many partial feelings, so that the result of their thoughts, in other words, their action, is less perilous and uncertain.