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If I am confronted with the example of almost all ages and almost all nations who have inflicted the punishment of death upon some crimes, I will reply, that the example avails nothing before truth, against which there is no prescription of time; and that the history of mankind conveys to us the idea of an immense sea of errors, among which a few truths, confusedly and at long intervals, float on the surface.[179] Human sacrifices were once common to almost all nations, yet who for that reason will dare defend them? That some few states, and for a short time only, should have abstained from inflicting death, rather favours my argument than otherwise, because such a fact is in keeping with the lot of all great truths, whose duration is but as of a lightning flash in comparison with the long and darksome night that envelops mankind. That happy time has not yet arrived when truth, as error has hitherto done, shall belong to the majority of men; and from this universal law of the reign of error those truths alone have hitherto been exempt, which supreme wisdom has seen fit to distinguish from others, by making them the subject of a special revelation. Pederasty, so severely punished by the laws, and so readily subjected to the tortures that triumph over innocence, is founded less on the necessities of man, when living in a state of isolation and freedom, than on his passions when living in a state of society and slavery. It derives its force not so much from satiety of pleasure as from the system of education now in vogue, which, beginning by making men useless to themselves in order to make them useful to others, causes, by its too strict seclusion, a waste of all vigorous development, and accelerates the approach of old age.

But if the interest of Beccarias chapter on Torture is now merely historical, an interest that is actual still attaches to his advocacy of the total abolition of capital punishment, this being the cause with which his name is most generally associated, and for which it is likely to be longest remembered. Previous writers, like Montaigne, if they deprecated the excess or severity of the death penalty, never thought of urging that it should be abolished altogether.

CHAPTER I. BECCARIAS LIFE AND CHARACTER. Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful[204] instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.

Moreover, if, as was said, our feelings are limited in quantity, the greater respect men may have for things outside the laws, the less will remain to them for the laws themselves. From this principle the wise administrator of the public happiness may draw some useful consequences, the exposition of which would lead me too far from my subject, which is to demonstrate the uselessness of making a prison of the State. A law with such an object is useless, because, unless inaccessible rocks or an unnavigable sea separate a country from all others, how will it be possible to close all the points of its circumference and keep guard over the guardians themselves? A man who transports everything he has with him, when he has done so cannot be punished. Such a crime once committed can no longer be punished, and to punish it beforehand would be to punish mens wills, not their actions, to exercise command over their intention, the freest part of human nature, and altogether independent of the control of human laws. The punishment of an absent man in the property he leaves behind him would ruin all international commerce,[225] to say nothing of the facility of collusion, which would be unavoidable, except by a tyrannical control of contracts. And his punishment on his return, as a criminal, would prevent the reparation of the evil done to society, by making all removals perpetual. The very prohibition to leave a country augments peoples desire to do so, and is a warning to foreigners not to enter it.

To combine the maximum of perspicuity with the maximum of fidelity to the original has been the cardinal principle observed in the translation. But it would, of course, have been no less impossible than contrary to the spirit of the original to have attempted to render perfectly comprehensible what the author purposely wrapped in obscurity. A translation can but follow the lights and shades of the surface it reflects, rendering clear what is clear in the original, and opaque what is opaque.

The knowledge of the true relations between a sovereign and his subjects, and of those between different nations; the revival of commerce by the light of philosophical truths, diffused by printing; and the silent international war of industry, the most humane and the most worthy of rational menthese are the fruits which we owe to the enlightenment of this century. But how few have examined and combated the cruelty of punishments, and the irregularities of criminal procedures, a part of legislation so[119] elementary and yet so neglected in almost the whole of Europe; and how few have sought, by a return to first principles, to dissipate the mistakes accumulated by many centuries, or to mitigate, with at least that force which belongs only to ascertained truths, the excessive caprice of ill-directed power, which has presented up to this time but one long example of lawful and cold-blooded atrocity! And yet the groans of the weak, sacrificed to the cruelty of the ignorant or to the indolence of the rich; the barbarous tortures, multiplied with a severity as useless as it is prodigal, for crimes either not proved or quite chimerical; the disgusting horrors of a prison, enhanced by that which is the cruellest executioner of the miserablenamely, uncertainty;these ought to startle those rulers whose function it is to guide the opinion of mens minds.

It would also seem to demand no great insight to perceive that a voluntary intention must be a universal attribute of a criminal action. No one would think of punishing a man who in his sleep killed another, although, if the injury to society be the measure of punishment, his crime is equivalent to intentional homicide. Yet at Athens an involuntary murderer was banished until he could, give satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased; and in China, though the penal code generally separates intentional from accidental crimes, anyone who kills a near relation by accident or commits certain kinds[72] of arson by accident undergoes different degrees of banishment and a fixed number of bamboo strokes.[40]

Some crimes are injuries to a mans person, others to his property, and the former should certainly be punished by corporal punishments.