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.

Pederasty, so severely punished by the laws, and so readily subjected to the tortures that triumph over innocence, is founded less on the necessities of man, when living in a state of isolation and freedom, than on his passions when living in a state of society and slavery. It derives its force not so much from satiety of pleasure as from the system of education now in vogue, which, beginning by making men useless to themselves in order to make them useful to others, causes, by its too strict seclusion, a waste of all vigorous development, and accelerates the approach of old age.

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. Thus, the two writers to whom Beccaria owed most were Montesquieu and Helvetius. The Lettres Persanes of the former, which satirised so many things then in custom, contained but little about penal laws; but the idea is there started for the first time that crimes depend but little on the mildness or severity of the punishments attached to them. The imagination, says the writer, bends of itself to the customs of the country; and eight days of prison or a slight fine have as much terror for a European brought up in a country of mild manners as the loss of an arm would have for an Asiatic.[4] The Esprit des Lois, by the same author, probably contributed more to the formation of Beccarias thoughts than the Lettres Persanes, for it is impossible to read the twelfth book of that work without being struck by the resemblance of ideas. The De LEsprit of Helvetius was condemned by the Sorbonne as a combination of all the various kinds of poison scattered through modern books. Yet it was one of the most influential books of the time. We find Hume recommending it to Adam Smith for its agreeable composition father than for its philosophy; and a writer who had much in common with Beccaria drew[8] from it the same inspiration that he did. That writer was Bentham, who tells us that when he was about twenty, and on a visit to his father and stepmother in the country, he would often walk behind them reading a book, and that his favourite author was Helvetius. Such are the fatal arguments employed, if not clearly, at least vaguely, by men disposed to crimes, among whom, as we have seen, the abuse of religion is more potent than religion itself.

It is remarkable that a book which has done more for law reform than any other before or since should have been written by a man who was not a lawyer by profession, who was totally unversed in legal practice, and who was only twenty-six when he attacked a system of law which had on its side all authority, living and dead. Hume was not twenty-seven when[4] he published his Treatise on Human Nature, nor was Berkeley more than twenty-six when he published his Principles of Human Knowledge. The similar precocity displayed by Beccaria is suggestive, therefore, of the inquiry, how far the greatest revolutions in the thoughts or customs of the world have been due to writers under thirty years of age.

There are, however, certain limitations even to the supposed universality of the custom. For the Roman jurists did not consider a re-conviction as a circumstance in itself which justified aggravation of punishment; and all that can be gathered from some fragments in the Pandects and Code is, that some particular cases of repeated crimes were punished more severely than a first offence. But they were crimes of the same kind; and a man whose first crime[91] was a theft and whose second was an assault would not have incurred an aggravated penalty. It is the same to-day in the Austrian, Tuscan, and a few other codes: a second crime is only punished more severely as a second crime when it is of the same kind as the first, so that it would not suffice to prove simply a previous conviction for felony irrespective of the particular sort. There is also another limitation that has sometimes been recognised, for in the Roman law the rule of an increased penalty fell to the ground, if three years elapsed without offence between the punishment for one crime and the commission of a second.[49] Whoever kills himself does a lesser evil to society than he who for ever leaves the boundaries of his country, for whilst the former leaves therein all his substance, the latter transports himself together with part of his property. Nay, if the power of a community consists in the number of its members, the man who withdraws himself to join a neighbouring nation does twice as great an injury as he who simply by death deprives society of his existence. The question, therefore, reduces itself to this: whether the leaving to each member of a nation a perpetual liberty to absent himself from it be advantageous or detrimental.

If, moreover, the prevention of crime is the chief object of punishment, why wait till the crime is committed? Why not punish before, as a certain Turk in Barbary is said to have done, who, whenever he bought a fresh Christian slave, had him forthwith suspended by his heels and bastinadoed, that the severe sense of his punishment might prevent him from committing in future the faults that should[82] merit it?[43] Why should we ever let a man out of prison who has once entered one? Is he not then a hundred times more likely to violate the law than he was before; and is he ever more dangerous to society than when he has once suffered for the public example, and been released from the discipline that was intended to reform him? It is still true, as Goldsmith said long ago, that we send a man to prison for one crime and let him loose again ready to commit a thousand. And so it is, that of the 74,000 souls who make up our criminal classes, whilst about 34,000 of them fill our prisons and reformatories, there is still an army of 40,000 at large in our midst, whom we class as known thieves, receivers of stolen goods, and suspected persons.[44]

My occupation is to cultivate philosophy in peace, and so to satisfy my three strongest passions, the love, that is, of literary fame, the love of liberty, and pity for the ills of mankind, slaves of so many errors. My conversion to philosophy only dates back five years, and I owe it to my perusal of the Lettres Persanes. The second work that completed my mental revolution was that of Helvetius. The latter forced me irresistibly into the way of truth, and aroused my attention for the first time to the blindness and miseries of humanity.



Lord Ellenborough, on the last day but one of May 1810, appealed to their lordships to pause, before they passed the Shoplifting Bill and gave their assent to the repeal of a law which had so long been held necessary for the security of the public. No one, he insisted, was more disposed than himself to the exercise of clemency, but there was not the slightest ground for the insinuations of cruelty that had been cast on the administration of the law. If shoplifting did not require the penalty of death, the same rule would have to apply to horse- and sheep-stealing; and, in spite of all that was said in favour of this speculative humanity, they must all agree, that prevention of crime should be the chief object of the law, and that terror alone could prevent the crime in question. Those who were thus speculating in modern legislation urged that punishment should[63] be certain and proportionate; but he could satisfy the House that any attempt to apply a punishment in exact conformity to the offence would be perfectly ludicrous. He had consulted with the other judges, and they were unanimously of opinion that it would not be expedient to remit this part of the severity of the criminal law.[38] He therefore entreated them to pause.

Of what kind, then, will be the punishments due to the crimes of nobles, whose privileges form so great a part of the laws of different countries? I will not here inquire whether this traditional distinction between nobles and commons be advantageous in a government, or necessary in a monarchy; nor whether it be true that a nobility forms an intermediate power in restraint of the excesses of the two[207] extremes, and not rather a caste which, in slavery to itself and to others, confines all circulation of merit and hope to a very narrow circle, like those fertile and pleasant oases scattered among the vast sand-deserts of Arabia; nor whether, supposing it to be true that inequality is inevitable and useful in society, it be also true that such inequality should subsist between classes rather than individuals, and should remain with one part of the body politic rather than circulate through the whole; whether it should rather perpetuate itself than be subject to constant self-destruction and renovation. I will confine myself to the punishments proper for nobles, affirming that they should be the same for the greatest citizen as for the least. Every distinction of honour or of riches presupposes, to be legitimate, a prior state of equality, founded on the laws, which regard all subjects as equally dependent on themselves. One must suppose the men, who renounced their natural state of despotic independence, to have said: Let him who is more industrious than his fellows have greater honours, and let his fame be greater among his successors; let him who is more prosperous and honoured hope even to become more so, but let him fear no less than other men to break those conditions by virtue of which he is raised above them. True it is that such decrees did not emanate in a convocation of the human race, but such decrees exist in the[208] eternal relations of things; they do not destroy the supposed advantages of a nobility, though they prevent its abuses; and they make laws feared, by closing every admission to impunity. And if any one shall say that the same punishment inflicted upon a noble and upon a commoner is not really the same, by reason of the diversity of their education, and of the disgrace spread over an illustrious family, I will reply, that the sensibility of the criminal is not the measure of punishment, but the public injury, and that this is all the greater when committed by the more highly favoured man; that equality of punishment can only be so when considered extrinsically, being really different in each individual; and that the disgrace of a family can be removed by public proofs of kindness on the part of the sovereign towards the innocent family of the criminal. And who is there but knows that formalities which strike the senses serve as reasonings with the credulous and admiring populace?