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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.

What is the best way of preventing crimes? Sir Robert Peel, who was the first Ministerial law reformer, succeeded in getting the death penalty repealed for several crimes which were practically obsolete, but forty kinds of forgery alone still remained capital offences.

CHAPTER XIX. THE PROMPTNESS OF PUNISHMENTS.

So great, however, did the changes appear to be, that Sir James Mackintosh declared, towards the close of his life, that it was as if he had lived in two different countries, such was the contrast between the past and the present. Yet Sir James died in the very year that the first Reform Bill passed, and it was not till after that event that any really great progress was made towards ameliorating the penal laws.

It certainly should moderate our reverence for ancestral wisdom to find even a man like Fielding, the novelist, speaking, in his Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex, of the pillory and the loss of a mans ears as an extremely mild punishment for a bad case of libel, or declaring our punishments of that time to be the mildest and most void of terror of any other in the known world. Yet Fielding recognised several of the true principles of punishment. He attributed the increase of crime to the great abuse of pardons, which, he said, had brought many more men to the gallows than they had saved from it. He also advocated the diminution of the number of executions, their greater privacy and solemnity, whilst he recommended their following as closely as possible on conviction, that pity for the criminal might be lost in detestation for his crime.[33]

Such contradictions between the laws of a family and the fundamental laws of a State are a fertile[238] source of other contradictions between public and private morality, giving rise consequently to a perpetual conflict in every individual mind. For whilst private morality inspires fear and subjection, public morality teaches courage and freedom; whilst the former inculcates the restriction of well-doing to a small number of persons indiscriminately, the latter inculcates its extension to all classes of men; and whilst the one enjoins the constant sacrifice of self to a vain idol, called the good of the family (which is frequently not the good of any single member that composes it), the other teaches men to benefit themselves, provided they break not the laws, and incites them, by the reward of enthusiasm, which is the precursor of their action, to sacrifice themselves to the good of their country. Such contradictions make men scorn to follow virtue, which they find so complicated and confused, and at that distance from them, which objects, both moral and physical, derive from their obscurity. How often it happens that a man, in reflecting on his past actions, is astonished at finding himself dishonest. The larger society grows, the smaller fraction of the whole does each member of it become, and the more is the feeling of the commonwealth diminished, unless care be taken by the laws to reinforce it. Societies, like human bodies, have their circumscribed limits, extension beyond which involves inevitably a disturbance of their[239] economy. The size of a State ought apparently to vary inversely with the sensibility of its component parts; otherwise, if both increase together, good laws will find, in the very benefit they have effected, an obstacle to the prevention of crimes. Too large a republic can only save itself from despotism by a process of subdivision, and a union of the parts into so many federative republics. But how effect this, save by a despotic dictator with the courage of Sylla and as much genius for construction as he had for destruction? If such a man be ambitious, the glory of all the ages awaits him; and if he be a philosopher, the blessings of his fellow-citizens will console him for the loss of his authority, even should he not become indifferent to their ingratitude. In proportion as the feelings which unite us to our own nation are weakened, do those for the objects immediately around us gain in strength; and it is for this reason that under the severest despotism the strongest friendships are to be found, and that the family virtues, ever of an exalted character, are either the most common or the only ones. It is evident, therefore, how limited have been the views of the great majority of legislators.

Another ridiculous reason for torture is the purgation from infamy; that is to say, a man judged infamous by the laws must confirm his testimony by the dislocation of his bones. This abuse ought not to be tolerated in the eighteenth century. It is believed that pain, which is a physical sensation, purges from infamy, which is merely a moral condition. Is pain, then, a crucible, and infamy a mixed impure substance? But infamy is a sentiment, subject neither to laws nor to reason, but to common opinion. Torture itself causes real infamy to the victim of it. So the result is, that by this method infamy will be taken away by the very fact of its infliction!