Would you prevent crimes? Let the laws be clear and simple, let the entire force of the nation be united in their defence, let them be intended rather to favour every individual than any particular classes of men, let the laws be feared, and the laws only. The fear of the laws is salutary, but the fear of men is a fruitful and fatal source of crimes. Men enslaved are more voluptuous, more debauched, and more cruel than those who are in a state of freedom. These study the sciences, the interest of nations, have great objects before their eyes, and imitate them; but those, whose views are confined to the present moment, endeavour, amidst the distraction of riot and debauchery, to forget their situation; accustomed to the uncertainty of all events, for the laws determine none, the consequences of their crimes become problematical, which gives an additional force to the strength of their passions.
In a nation indolent from the nature of the climate, the uncertainty
of the laws confirms and increases men's indolence and stupidity. In a
voluptuous but active nation, this uncertainty occasions a multiplicity
of cabals and intrigues, which spread distrust and diffidence through the
hearts of all, and dissimulation and treachery are the foundation of their
prudence. In a brave and powerful nation, this uncertainty of the laws
is at last destroyed, after many oscillations from liberty to slavery,
and from slavery to liberty again.
It is false that the sciences have always been prejudicial to mankind. When they were so, the evil was inevitable. The multiplication of the human species on the face of the earth introduced war, the rudiments of arts, and the first laws, which were temporary compacts, arising from necessity, and perishing with it. This was the first philosophy, and its few elements were just, as indolence and want of sagacity in the early inhabitants of the world preserved them from error.
But necessities increasing with the number of mankind, stronger and more lasting impressions were necessary to prevent their frequent relapses into a state of barbarity, which became every day more fatal. The first religious errors, which peopled the earth with false divinities, and created a world of invisible beings to govern the visible creation, were of the utmost service to mankind. The greatest benefactors to humanity were those who dared to deceive, and lead pliant ignorance to the foot of the altar. By presenting to the minds of the vulgar things out of the reach of their senses, which fled as they pursued, and always eluded their grasp which as, they never comprehended, they never despised, their different passions were united, and attached to a single object. This was the first transition of all nations from their savage state. Such was the necessary, and perhaps the only bond of all societies at their first formation. I speak not of the chosen people of God, to whom the most extraordinary miracles and the most signal favours supplied the place of human policy. But as it is the nature of error to subdivide itself ad infinitum, so the pretended knowledge which sprung from it, transformed mankind into a blind fanatic multitude, jarring and destroying each other in the labyrinth in which they were inclosed: hence it is not wonderful that some sensible and philosophic minds should regret the ancient state of barbarity. This was the first epoch, in which knowledge, or rather opinions, were fatal.
The second may be found in the difficult and terrible passage from error to truth, from darkness to light. The violent shock between a mass of errors useful to the few and powerful, and the truths so important to the many and the weak, with the fermentation of passions excited on that occasion, were productive of infinite evils to unhappy mortals. In the study of history, whose principal periods, after certain intervals, much resemble each other, we frequently find, in the necessary passage from the obscurity of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from tyranny to liberty, its natural consequence, one generation sacrificed to the happiness of the next. But when this flame is extinguished, and the world delivered from its evils, truth, after a very slow progress, sits down with monarchs on the throne, and is worshipped in the assemblies of nations. Shall we then believe, that light diffused among the people is more destructive than darkness, and that the knowledge of the relation of things can ever be fatal to mankind?
Ignorance may indeed be less fatal than a small degree of knowledge, because this adds to the evils of ignorance, the inevitable errors of a confined view of things on this side the bounds of truth; but a man of enlightened understanding, appointed guardian of the laws, is the greatest blessing that a sovereign can bestow on a nation. Such a man is accustomed to behold truth, and not to fear it; unacquainted with the greatest part of those imaginary and insatiable necessities which so often put virtue to the proof, and accustomed to contemplate mankind from the most elevated point of view, he considers the nation as his family, and his fellow-citizens as brothers; the distance between the great and the vulgar appears to him the less as the number of mankind he has in view is greater.
The philosopher has necessities and interests unknown to the vulgar,
and the chief of these is not to belie in public the principles he taught
in obscurity, and the habit of loving virtue for its own sake. A few such
philosophers would constitute the happiness of a nation; which however
would be but of short duration, unless by good laws the number were so
increased as to lessen the probability of an improper choice.
The greater the number of those who constitute the tribunal, the less
is the danger of corruption; because the attempt will be more difficult,
and the power and temptation of each individual will be proportionably
less. If the sovereign, by pomp and the austerity of edicts, and by refusing
to hear the complaints of the oppressed, accustom his subjects to respect
the magistrates more than the laws, the magistrates will gain indeed, but
it will be at the expense of public and private security.
A great man, who is persecuted by that world he hath enlightened, and
to whom we are indebted for many important truths, hath most amply detailed
the principal maxims of useful education. This chiefly consists in presenting
to the mind a small number of select objects, in substituting the originals
for the copies both of physical and moral phenomena, in leading the pupil
to virtue by the easy road of sentiment, and in withholding him from evil
by the infallible power of necessary inconveniences, rather than by command,
which only obtains a counterfeit and momentary obedience.
A small crime is sometimes pardoned if the person offended chooses to
forgive the offender. This may be an act of good nature and humanity, but
it is contrary to the good of the public: for although a private citizen
may dispense with satisfaction for the injury he has received, he cannot
remove the necessity of example. The right of punishing belongs not to
any individual in particular, but to society in general, or the sovereign.
He may renounce his own portion of this right, but cannot give up that
From what I have written results the following general theorem, of considerable utility, though not conformable to custom, the common legislator of nations:
That a punishment may not be an act of violence, of one, or of many, against a private member of society, it should be public, immediate, and necessary, the least possible in the case given, proportioned to the crime, and determined by the laws.
Writings of Cesare Beccaria