[98] Is death a penalty really useful and necessary for the security and good order of society?

Lord Kames attacked our criminal law in a still more indirect way, by tracing punishment historically to the revenge of individuals for their private injuries, and by extolling the excellence of the criminal law of the ancient Egyptians. They, he said, avoided capital punishments as much as possible, preferring others which equally prevented the recommission of crimes. Such punishments effected their end with less harshness and severity than is found in the laws of any other nation, ancient or modern.[32]

CHAPTER XXVII. CRIMES AGAINST PERSONAL SECURITYACTS OF VIOLENCEPUNISHMENTS OF NOBLES. Nothing could be more interesting than Lord Kames account of the growth of criminal law, from the rude revenges of savages to the legal punishments of civilised States; but it was probably intended by its author less as an historical treatise than as a veiled attack upon the penal system of his country. It is, therefore, a good illustration of the timidity of the Theoretical school against the overwhelming forces of the Practical school of law, which, of course, included[51] the great body of the legal profession; and it is the first sign of an attempt to apply the experience of other countries and times to the improvement of our own jurisprudence.

Is death a penalty really useful and necessary for the security and good order of society?

Ramsay was so far right, that whether a revolution was the only hope for theories like Beccarias or[21] not, the realisation of many of them was one of the first results of that general revolution, which seemed to Ramsay so impossible and undesirable. His letter, as it is a characteristic expression of that common apathy and despair of change which afflict at times even the most sanguine and hopeful, so it is, from its misplaced despair, a good cure for moods of like despondency. For the complete triumph of Beccarias theories about torture, to say nothing of other improvements in law that he lived to witness, is perhaps the most signal instance in history of the conquest of theory over practice. For albeit that his theory was at total variance with the beliefs and ideas of the whole practical school, Beccaria lived to see torture abolished, not only in Lombardy and Tuscany, but in Austria generally, in Portugal and in Sweden, in Russia as well as in France. Yet Ramsays fears at the time were more reasonable than the hopes of Beccaria.

What influence have they on customs?

There is also a fourth consequence of the above principles: that the right to interpret penal laws cannot possibly rest with the criminal judges, for the[126] very reason that they are not legislators. The judges have not received the laws from our ancestors as a family tradition, as a legacy that only left to posterity the duty of obeying them, but they receive them from living society, or from the sovereign that represents it and is the lawful trustee of the actual result of mens collective wills; they receive them, not as obligations arising from an ancient oath[65] (null, because it bound wills not then in existence, and iniquitous, because it reduced men from a state of society to that of a flock), but as the result of the tacit or expressed oath made to the sovereign by the united wills of living subjects, as chains necessary for curbing and regulating the disorders caused by private interests. This is the natural and real source of the authority of the laws.

Since, therefore, there is more to fear from a punished than from an unpunished criminal, there is the less reason to regret the general impunity of crime. There is indeed a large class of crimes for the prevention of which more would be done, by leaving them to their natural consequences, and to the strong power against them which the general interests and moral feelings of mankind will always enforce, than by actual punishment. It is particularly crimes of dishonesty which are best punished by the mere fact of their discovery. By the Norwegian law if an offender holds any official place he is punished, not by fine or imprisonment, but by the loss of his office and all the privileges connected with it.[59] And if we imagine a country without any legal penalty at all for theft or dishonesty, thieves and their tribe would soon find their proper punishment, by that process of social shifting, which would drive them to the most deleterious or dangerous occupations of life even more effectually than it so drives them at present. The less dependence is placed on the penal sanctions of crime, the stronger do the moral restraints from it become.

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.

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.