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.

The aim of punishment is not to torment sensitive beings.

Smuggling is a real crime against the sovereign and the nation; but its punishment should not be one of disgrace, because its commission incurs no disgrace in public opinion. Men for the most part leave the regulation of their chief concerns to the prudence of the moment, or to the discretion of those whose interest it is to oppose the wisest laws; such laws, namely, as naturally help to diffuse the benefits of life, and check that tendency they have to accumulate in the hands of a few, which ranges on one side the extreme of power and happiness, and on the other all that is weak and wretched. It is only, therefore, after having passed through a thousand errors in matters that most nearly touch their lives and liberties, only after weariness of evils that have been suffered to reach a climax, that men are induced to seek a remedy for the abuses which oppress them, and to recognise the clearest truths, which, precisely on account of their simplicity, escape the notice of ordinary minds, unaccustomed as they are to analyse things, and apt to receive their impressions anyhow, from tradition rather than from inquiry.

The first class of crimesthat is, the worst, because they are the most injurious to societyare those known as crimes of high treason. Only tyranny and ignorance, which confound words and ideas of the clearest meaning, can apply this name, and consequently the heaviest punishment, to different kinds of crimes, thus rendering men, as in a thousand other cases, the victims of a word. Every crime, be it ever so private, injures society; but every crime does not aim at its immediate destruction. Moral, like physical actions, have their limited sphere of activity, and are differently circumscribed, like all the movements of nature, by time and space; and therefore only a sophistical interpretation, which is generally the philosophy of slavery, can confound what eternal truth has distinguished by immutable differences.

It is not true that the sciences have always been injurious to mankind; when they were so, it was an inevitable evil. The multiplication of the human race over the face of the earth introduced war, the ruder arts, and the first laws, mere temporary agreements which perished with the necessity that gave rise to them. This was mankinds primitive philosophy, the few elements of which were just, because the indolence and slight wisdom of their framers preserved them from error. But with the multiplication of men there went ever a multiplication of their wants. Stronger and more lasting impressions were, therefore, needed, in order to turn them back from repeated lapses to that primitive state of disunion which each return to it rendered worse. Those primitive delusions, therefore, which peopled the earth with false divinities and created an invisible universe that governed our own, conferred a great benefitI mean a great political benefitupon humanity. Those men were benefactors of their kind, who dared to deceive them and drag them, docile and ignorant, to worship at the altars. By presenting to them objects that lay beyond the scope of sense and fled from their grasp the nearer they seemed to approach themnever despised, because never well understoodthey concentrated their divided passions upon a single object[247] of supreme interest to them. These were the first steps of all the nations that formed themselves out of savage tribes; this was the epoch when larger communities were formed, and such was their necessary and perhaps their only bond. I say nothing of that chosen people of God, for whom the most extraordinary miracles and the most signal favours were a substitute for human policy. But as it is the quality of error to fall into infinite subdivisions, so the sciences that grew out of it made of mankind a blind fanatical multitude, which, shut up within a close labyrinth, collides together in such confusion, that some sensitive and philosophical minds have regretted to this day the ancient savage state. That is the first epoch in which the sciences or rather opinions are injurious.

But there is a still further uncertainty of punishment, for it is as well known in the criminal world as elsewhere that the sentence pronounced in court is not the real sentence, and that neither penal servitude for[96] five years nor penal servitude for life mean necessarily anything of the sort. The humanity of modern legislation insists on a remission of punishment, dependent on a convicts life in the public works prisons, in order that the element of hope may brighten his lot and perchance reform his character. This remission was at first dependent simply on his conduct, which was perhaps too generously called good where it was hard for it to be bad; now it depends on his industry and amount of work done. Yet the element of hope might be otherwise assured than by lessening the certainty of punishment, say, by associating industry or good conduct with such little privileges of diet, letter-writing, or receiving of visits, as still shed some rays of pleasure over the monotony of felon-life. It should not be forgotten, that the Commission of 1863, which so strongly advocated the remissibility of parts of penal sentences, did so in despite of one of its principal members, against no less an authority than the Lord Chief Justice, then Sir Alexander Cockburn.[55] The very fact of the remissibility of a sentence is an admission of its excessive severity; for to say that a sentence is never carried out is to say that it need never have been inflicted.