If pleasure and pain are the motors of sensitive beings, if the invisible lawgiver of humanity has decreed rewards and punishments as one of the motives to impel men to even their noblest endeavours, the inexact distribution of these motives will give rise to that contradiction, as little noticed as it is of common occurrence, namely, that the laws punish crimes which are entirely of their own creation. If an equal penalty is attached to two crimes of unequal injury to society, the greater crime of the two, if it promise a greater advantage than the other, will have no stronger motive in restraint of its perpetration.[197] Whoever, for example, sees the same punishment of death decreed for the man who kills a pheasant and the man who slays his fellow or falsifies an important document, will draw no distinction between such crimes; and thus moral sentiments, the product only of many ages and of much bloodshed, the slowest and most difficult attainment of the human mind, dependent, it has been thought, on the aid of the most sublime motives and on a parade of the gravest formalities, will be destroyed and lost. The more cruel punishments become, the more human minds harden, adjusting themselves, like fluids, to the level of objects around them; and the ever living force of the passions brings it about, that after a hundred years of cruel punishments, the wheel frightens men only just as much as at first did the punishment of prison. 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.

There is no doubt that Beccaria always had a strong preference for the contemplative as opposed to the practical and active life, and that but for his friend Pietro Verri he would probably never have distinguished himself at all. He would have said with Plato that a wise man should regard life as a storm, and hide himself behind a wall till it be overpast. He almost does say this in his essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination, published soon after the Crimes and Punishments. He advises his reader to stand aside and look on at the rest of mankind as they run about in their blind confusion; to make his relations with them as few as possible; and if he will do them any good, to do it at that distance which will prevent them from upsetting him or drawing him away in their own vortex. Let him in happy contemplation enjoy in silence the few moments that separate his birth from his disappearance. Let him leave men to fight,[12] to hope, and to die; and with a smile both at himself and at them, let him repose softly on that enlightened indifference with regard to human things which will not deprive him of the pleasure of being just and beneficent, but which will spare him from those useless troubles and changes from evil to good that vex the greater part of mankind.

It is impossible to prevent all the disorders that may arise in the universal conflict of human passions. Their increase depends on that of population and on the crossings of private interests, which cannot be directed with geometrical exactness to the public welfare. In political arithmetic the calculation of probabilities must be substituted for mathematical exactness. Glance at the history of the world, and you will see disorders increase with the increase of the bounds of empire; thus national feeling being to the same extent diminished, the general inducement to crime increases with the greater interest of each individual in such disorders, and on this account the necessity for aggravating penalties ever continues to increase.

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.

It is, then, proved that the law which imprisons[227] subjects in their own country is useless and unjust. The punishment, therefore, of suicide is equally so; and consequently, although it is a fault punishable by God, for He alone can punish after death, it is not a crime in the eyes of men, for the punishment they inflict, instead of falling on the criminal himself, falls on his family. If anyone objects, that such a punishment can nevertheless draw a man back from his determination to kill himself, I reply, that he who calmly renounces the advantages of life, who hates his existence here below to such an extent as to prefer to it an eternity of misery, is not likely to be moved by the less efficacious and more remote consideration of his children or his relations.


In order that a punishment may be just, it must contain only such degrees of intensity as suffice to deter men from crimes. But as there is no one who on reflection would choose the total and perpetual loss of his liberty, however great the advantages offered him by a crime, the intensity of the punishment of servitude for life, substituted for capital punishment, has that in it which is sufficient to daunt the most determined courage. I will add that it is even more deterrent than death. Very many men face death calmly and firmly, some from fanaticism, some from vanity, which almost always attends a man to the tomb; others from a last desperate attempt either no longer to live or to escape from their misery; but neither fanaticism nor vanity have any place among fetters and chains, under the stick, under the yoke, in a cage of iron; the wretch thus punished is so far from terminating his miseries that with his punishment he only begins them.

The greatest effect that any punishment has upon the human mind is not to be measured by its intensity but by its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and permanently affected by very slight but repeated impressions than by a strong but brief shock. Habit holds universal sway over every sentient being, and as we speak and walk and satisfy our needs by its aid, so moral ideas only stamp themselves on our mind by long and repeated impressions. It is not the terrible yet brief sight of a criminals death, but the long and painful example of a man deprived of[172] his liberty, who, having become as it were a beast of burthen, repays with his toil the society he has offended, which is the strongest restraint from crimes. Far more potent than the fear of death, which men ever have before their eyes in the remote distance, is the thought, so efficacious from its constant recurrence: I myself shall be reduced to as long and miserable a condition if I commit similar misdeeds.