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The influence of the predominant French philosophy appears throughout Beccarias treatise. Human justice is based on the idea of public utility, and the object of legislation is to conduct men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery. The vein of dissatisfaction with life and of disbelief in human virtue is a marked feature of Beccarias philosophy. To him life is a desert, in which a few physical pleasures lie scattered here and there;[5] his own country is only a place of exile, save for the presence of a few friends engaged like himself in a war with ignorance. Human ideas of morality and virtue have only been produced in the course of many centuries and after much bloodshed, but slow and difficult as their growth has been, they are ever ready to disappear at the slightest breeze that blows against them.

Such are some of the problems connected with penology, which best illustrate the imperfection of its hitherto attained results. Only one thing as yet seems to stand out from the mist, which is, that closely associated as crime and punishment are both in thought and speech, they are but little associated in reality. The amount of crime in a country appears to be a given quantity, dependent on quite other causes than the penal laws directed to its repression. The efficiency of the latter seems proportioned[107] to their mildness, not to their severity; such severity being always spoiled by an inevitable moderation in practice. The conclusion, therefore, would seem to be, that a short simple code, with every punishment attached to every offence, with every motive for aggravation of punishment stated, and on so moderate a scale that no discretion for its mitigation should be necessary, would be the means best calculated to give to penal laws their utmost value as preventives of crime, though experience proves that as such preventives their place is a purely secondary one in a really good system of legislation.

But the honour of having been the first country to lay aside the use of torture undoubtedly belongs to England, just as the honour of having been the first in modern times to abolish capital punishment, except for political offences, belongs to Russia; and the practical example thus afforded by our laws probably did more for the general abolition of the custom than any written treatise on the subject ever would have done alone. English and foreign jurists long delighted to honour the Common Law for its non-recognition of torture. But though torture was contrary to the Common Law, and even to Magna Charta, it was not contrary to Prerogative; and until the Commonwealth it was used as matter of course in all grave accusations at the mere discretion of the monarch and Privy Council.[19] Therefore Beccaria pointed to England as a country which did not use torture with more justice than Grotius had done, who, when the rack was still in use amongst us, quoted England as a proof that people might safely live without torture. From this necessity of the favour of other people arose private duels, which sprang up precisely in an anarchical state of the laws. It is said they were unknown to antiquity, perhaps because the ancients did not meet suspiciously armed in the temples, the theatres, or with friends; perhaps because the duel was an ordinary and common sight, presented to the people by gladiators, who were slaves or low people, and freemen disdained to be thought and called private gladiators. In vain has it been sought to extirpate the custom by edicts of death against any man accepting a challenge, for it is founded on that which some men fear more than death; since without the favour of his fellows the man of honour foresees himself exposed either to become a merely solitary being, a condition insufferable to a sociable man, or to become the butt of insults and disgrace which, from their constant operation, prevail over the fear of punishment. Why is it that the lower orders do not for the most part fight duels like the great? Not only because they are disarmed, but because the need of the favour of others is less general among the people[213] than among those who, in higher ranks, regard themselves with greater suspicion and jealousy.