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 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.

Persons guilty of lesser crimes are usually either punished in the obscurity of a prison, or transported, as an example to nations who have given no offence, to a distant and therefore almost useless servitude. Since the gravest crimes are not those which men are tempted to commit on the spur of the moment, the public punishment of a great misdeed will be regarded by most men as strange and of impossible occurrence; but the public punishment of lighter crimes, to which mens thoughts more readily incline, will make an impression, which, at the same time that it diverts the mind from them, will restrain it still more from crimes of greater gravity. Punishments should not only be proportioned to one another and to crimes in point of force, but also in the mode of their infliction.

The majority of mankind lack that vigour which is equally necessary for the greatest crimes as for the greatest virtues; whence it would appear, that both extremes are contemporaneous phenomena in nations[162] which depend rather on the energy of their government and of the passions that tend to the public good, than on their size and the constant goodness of their laws. In the latter the weakened passions seem more adapted to maintain than to improve the form of government. From which flows an important consequence, namely, that great crimes in a nation do not always prove its decline. The Chinese penal code of 1647 is probably the nearest approach to Beccarias conception, and nothing is more marvellous than the precision with which it apportions punishments to every shade of crime, leaving no conceivable offence, of commission or[86] omission, without its exact number of bamboo strokes, its exact pecuniary penalty, or its exact term or distance of banishment. It is impossible in this code to conceive any discretion or room for doubt left to the judicial officers beyond the discovery of the fact of an alleged crime. But what is practicable in one country is practicable in another; so that the charge so often urged against thus eliminating judicial discretion, that it is fair in theory but impossible in practice, finds itself at direct issue with the facts of actual life.

Is it possible, then, so beforehand to apportion punishments to crimes that when a crime is committed it shall be but necessary to refer to a code and at once detect its appropriate punishment? Or must the law be general in its language, and leave a wide margin to the discretion of the judge? Beccaria would have the judicial function confined solely to the ascertainment of the fact of a crime, its punishment preordained by the law. On the other hand it is said, that it is impossible to anticipate every case that may arise; that no two cases are ever alike; that it is better to leave the nice adjustment of penalties to the wisdom and impartiality of a judge, and only limit his discretion by rules of a most expansive description.

Capital punishment makes an impression in prospect which, with all its force, does not fully meet that ready spirit of forgetfulness, so natural to man even in his most important concerns, and so liable to be accelerated by his passions. As a general rule, men are startled by the sight of violent sufferings, but not for long, and therefore such impressions are wont so to transform them as to make of ordinary men either Persians or Spartans; but in a free and settled government impressions should rather be frequent than strong.