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No inconvenience that may arise from a strict observance of the letter of penal laws is to be compared with the inconveniences of subjecting them to interpretation. The momentary inconvenience in the former case involves, indeed, correcting the words of the law which are the cause of the uncertainty, a task both easy and necessary; but the fatal licence of arguing, the source of so many arbitrary and venal disputes, is thereby prevented. When a fixed code of laws, which must be observed to the letter, leaves to the judge no further trouble than to inquire into the actions of citizens and to decide on their conformity to the written law; when the standard of just and[129] unjust, which should equally direct the actions of the ignorant citizen as of the philosophical one, is not a matter of controversy but of fact; then are people no longer subject to the petty tyrannies of many men, which are all the more cruel by reason of the smaller distance that separates the sufferer from the inflictor of suffering, and which are more pernicious than the tyrannies of a single man, inasmuch as the despotism of many is only curable by that of one, and a despots cruelty is proportioned, not to the power he possesses, but to the obstacles he encounters. Under a fixed code of laws citizens acquire that consciousness of personal security, which is just, because it is the object of social existence, and which is useful, because it enables them to calculate exactly the evil consequences of a misdeed. It is true they will also acquire a spirit of independence, but not such a spirit as will seek to shake the laws and prove rebellious against the chief magistrates, except against such of them as have dared to apply the sacred name of virtue to a spiritless submission to their own self-interested and capricious opinions. These principles will displease those who have assumed the right to transfer to their subordinates the strokes of tyranny they themselves have suffered from their superiors. I personally should have everything to fear, if the spirit of tyranny and the spirit of reading ever went together.

CHAPTER XXI. ASYLUMS OF REFUGE. The more cruel punishments become, the more human minds harden, adjusting themselves, like fluids, to the level of objects around them; and the ever living force of the passions brings it about, that after a hundred years of cruel punishments, the wheel frightens men only just as much as at first did the punishment of prison. We shall see, if we open histories, that laws, which[118] are or ought to be covenants between free men, have generally been nothing but the instrument of the passions of some few men, or the result of some accidental and temporary necessity. They have never been dictated by an unimpassioned student of human nature, able to concentrate the actions of a multitude of men to a single point of view, and to consider them from that point alonethe greatest happiness divided among the greatest number. Happy are those few nations which have not waited for the slow movement of human combinations and changes to cause an approach to better things, after intolerable evils, but have hastened the intermediate steps by good laws; and deserving is that philosopher of the gratitude of mankind, who had the courage, from the obscurity of his despised study, to scatter abroad among the people the first seeds, so long fruitless, of useful truths.

The case of infanticide suggests similar thoughts. When we remember that both Plato and Aristotle commended as a valuable social custom that which we treat as a crime; when we recall the fact that the life of a Spartan infant depended on a committee of elders, who decided whether it should live or perish, we shall better appreciate the distance we have travelled, or, as some would say, the progress we have made, if we take up some English daily paper and read of some high-minded English judge sentencing, at least formally, some wretched woman to death, because, in order to save her child from starvation or herself from shame, she has released it from existence. Yet the feeling, of which such a sentence is the expression, is often extolled as one of the highest triumphs of civilisation; and the laws, as if there were no difference between adult and infant[76] life, glory in protecting the weakness of a child by their merciless disregard for the weakness of its mother.

From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the[166] minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal.

An error, not less common than it is contrary to the object of societythat is, to the consciousness of personal securityis leaving a magistrate to be the arbitrary executor of the laws, free at his pleasure to imprison a citizen, to deprive a personal enemy of his liberty on frivolous pretexts, or to leave a friend unpunished in spite of the strongest proofs of his guilt. Imprisonment is a punishment which, unlike every other, must of necessity precede the declaration of guilt; but this distinctive character does not deprive it of the other essential of punishment, namely, that the law alone shall determine the cases under which it shall be merited. It is for the law, therefore, to point out the amount of evidence of a crime which shall justify the detention of the accused, and his subjection to examination and punishment. For such detention there may be sufficient proofs in common[133] report, in a mans flight, in a non-judicial confession, or in the confession of an accomplice; in a mans threats against or constant enmity with the person injured; in all the facts of the crime, and similar indications. But these proofs should be determined by the laws, not by the judges, whose decisions, when they are not particular applications of a general maxim in a public code, are always adverse to political liberty. The more that punishments are mitigated, that misery and hunger are banished from prisons, that pity and mercy are admitted within their iron doors, and are set above the inexorable and hardened ministers of justice, the slighter will be the evidences of guilt requisite for the legal detention of the suspected.