It is a great point in every good system of laws to determine exactly the credibility of witnesses and the proofs of guilt Every reasonable manthat is, every man with a certain connection between his ideas and with feelings like those of other menis capable of bearing witness. The true measure of his credibility is only the interest he has in speaking or in not speaking the truth; so that nothing can be more frivolous than to reject the evidence of women on the pretext of their feebleness, nothing more childish than to apply the results of real death to civil death as regards the testimony of the condemned, nothing more unmeaning than to insist on the mark of infamy in the infamous when they have no interest in lying.

It may be asked, How far was Beccaria the first to protest against the cruelty and absurdity of torture? To this it must be replied that although actually he was not the first, he was the first to do so with effect. The difference between previous writers on the subject and Beccaria is the difference between a man whose ideas are in advance of those of his age and a man who raises the ideas of his age to a level with his[31] own. So early as the sixteenth century Montaigne, in his Essay on Conscience, had said plainly enough that the putting a man to the rack was rather a trial of patience than of truth; that pain was as likely to extort a false confession as a true one; and that a judge, by having a man racked that he might not die innocent, caused him to die both innocent and racked. Also Grevius Clivensis wrote a work whilst in prison in Amsterdam, in which he sought to prove that torture was iniquitous, fallacious, and unchristian.[17] This was published in 1624; and nearly a century later a Jesuit, Spee, wrote against the use of torture, as also against the cruel practices in force against witches.[18] And in later days Montesquieu, twenty years before Beccaria, had gone so far as to say that, since a civilised nation like England had abandoned torture without evil consequences, it was therefore unnecessary; but he followed the subject to no definite conclusion. It would be possible to distinguish a case of fraud from a grave fault, a grave fault from a light one, and this again from perfect innocence; then to affix to the first the penalties due for crimes of falsification; to the second lesser penalties, but with the loss of personal liberty; and, reserving for the last degree the free choice of the means of recovery, to deprive the third degree of such liberty, whilst leaving it to a mans creditors. But the distinction between grave and light should be fixed by the blind impartiality of the laws, not by the dangerous and arbitrary wisdom of a judge. The fixings of limits are as necessary in politics as in mathematics, equally in the measurement[219] of the public welfare as in the measurement of magnitudes.[68] 2. When the proofs of a fact all depend equally on a single one, their number neither increases nor diminishes the probability of the fact in question, because their total value resolves itself into that of the single one on which they depend.

If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.

The lighting of a city by night at the public expense; the distribution of guards in the different quarters; simple moral discourses on religion, but only in the silent and holy quiet of churches, protected by public authority; speeches on behalf of private and public interests in national assemblies, parliaments, or wherever else the majesty of sovereignty residesall these are efficacious means for preventing the dangerous condensation of popular passions. These means are a principal branch of that magisterial vigilance which the French call police; but if this is exercised by arbitrary laws, not laid down in a code of general circulation, a door is opened to tyranny,[221] which ever surrounds all the boundaries of political liberty. I find no exception to this general axiom, that Every citizen ought to know when his actions are guilty or innocent. If censors, and arbitrary magistrates in general, are necessary in any government, it is due to the weakness of its constitution, and is foreign to the nature of a well organised government. More victims have been sacrificed to obscure tyranny by the uncertainty of their lot than by public and formal cruelty, for the latter revolts mens minds more than it abases them. The true tyrant always begins by mastering opinion, the precursor of courage; for the latter can only show itself in the clear light of truth, in the fire of passion, or in ignorance of danger.

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.

Laws should only be considered as a means of conducting mankind to the greatest happiness.

By the present English law a person convicted of more offences than one may be sentenced for each offence separately, the punishment of each one in[106] succession taking effect on the expiration of the other. By this law (which the Criminal Code Commissioners propose to alter) imprisonment may be spread over the whole of a lifetime. On this point the Chinese law again offers a model, for it enacts that when two or more offences are proved against a man, they shall all be estimated together, and the punishment of all the lesser offences be included in that of the principal charge, not in addition to it So also if the offences are charged at different times, and the punishment of one has been already discharged, there is no further punishment for the other subsequent charges, unless they be charges of greater criminality, in which case only the difference between the punishments can be legally incurred.[63] But this of course presupposes a definite scale of crimes and punishments.

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.