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Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long[9] and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that philosophical indolence which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.[6] It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law, because the absurdities themselves that a whole nation adopts have always some connection with other common ideas which the same nation respects. The custom seems to have been derived from religious and spiritual ideas, which have so great an influence on the thoughts of men, on nations, and on generations. An infallible dogma assures us, that the stains contracted by human weakness[156] and undeserving of the eternal anger of the Supreme Being must be purged by an incomprehensible fire. Now, infamy is a civil stain; and as pain and fire take away spiritual and incorporeal stains, why should not the agonies of torture take away the civil stain of infamy? I believe that the confession of a criminal, which some courts insist on as an essential requisite for condemnation, has a similar origin;because in the mysterious tribunal of repentance the confession of sins is an essential part of the sacrament. This is the way men abuse the surest lights of revelation; and as these are the only ones which exist in times of ignorance, it is to them on all occasions that docile humanity turns, making of them the most absurd and far-fetched applications.

Men oppose the strongest barriers against open tyranny, but they see not the imperceptible insect, which gnaws them away, and makes for the invading stream an opening that is all the more sure by very reason of its concealment from view.

All punishment is unjust that is unnecessary to the maintenance of public safety. The following letter by Beccaria to the Abb Morellet in acknowledgment of the latters translation of his treatise is perhaps the best introduction to the life and character of the author. The letter in question has been quoted by Villemain in proof of the debt owed by the Italian literature of the last century to that of France, but from the allusions therein contained to Hume and the Spectator it is evident that something also was due to our own. Beccaria had spent eight years of his youth in the college of the Jesuits at Parma, with what sense of gratitude this letter will show. The following is a translation of the greater part of it:

A childs simple philosophy of punishment therefore is after all the correct one, when it tells you without hesitation that the reason a man is punished for a bad action is simply because he deserves it. The notion of desert in punishment is based entirely on feelings of the justice of resentment. So that the[83] primary aim of legal punishment is precisely the same as may be shown historically to have been its origin, namely, the regulation by society of the wrongs of individuals. In all early laws and societies distinct traces may be seen of the transition of the vendetta, or right of private revenge, from the control of the person or family injured by a crime to that of the community at large. The latter at first decided only the question of guilt, whilst leaving its punishment to the pleasure of the individuals directly concerned by it. Even to this day in Turkey sentences of death for murder run as follows: So-and-so is condemned to death at the demand of the victims heirs; and such sentences are sometimes directed to be carried out in their presence.[45] By degrees the community obtained control of the punishment as well, and thus private might became public right, and the resentment of individual injuries the Retributive Justice of the State.

CHAPTER VIII. WITNESSES. CHAPTER XXII. OF PROSCRIPTION.

Again, Proportion between crime and punishment seems to be another natural demand of equity. Yet it is evident that it is only approximately possible, and will vary in every age and country according to the prevalent notions of morality. Is imprisonment for a year, or imprisonment for life, or for how long, a fair and proportionate punishment for perjury? Who shall decide? Shall we submit it to the opinion of the judges? But has not Romilly left on record the story of the two men tried by two different judges for stealing some chickens, who were sentenced respectively one to imprisonment for two months, and the other to transportation? Shall we then give up all attempt at proportion and apply the same deterrent as equally efficacious against slight or grave offences? Draco, when asked why he made death the punishment for most offences that were possible, is said to have replied, Small ones deserve it, and I can find no greater for the gravest. The same reasoning was for a long time that of our own law; and in Japan,[78] where every wrong act was one of disobedience to the Emperor, and accordingly of equal value, the same penalty of death for gambling, theft, or murder, obviated all difficulties with regard to a proportion which is easier to imagine than it is to define.