My occupation is to cultivate philosophy in peace, and so to satisfy my three strongest passions, the love, that is, of literary fame, the love of liberty, and pity for the ills of mankind, slaves of so many errors. My conversion to philosophy only dates back five years, and I owe it to my perusal of the Lettres Persanes. The second work that completed my mental revolution was that of Helvetius. The latter forced me irresistibly into the way of truth, and aroused my attention for the first time to the blindness and miseries of humanity. It is not useless to repeat what others have written, namely, that the best method of preventing this crime is to punish the aggressorin other words, the man who gives rise to the dueldeclaring him to be innocent who without his own fault has been constrained to defend that which existing laws do not assure to him, that is, opinion.

DAlembert, Diderot, Helvetius, Buffon, Hume, illustrious names, which no one can hear without emotion! Your immortal works are my continual study, the object of my occupation by day, of my meditation in the silence of night. Full of the truth which you teach, how could I ever have burned incense to worshipped error, or debased myself to lie to posterity? I find myself rewarded beyond my hopes[6] in the signs of esteem I have received from these celebrated persons, my masters. Convey to each of these, I pray you, my most humble thanks, and assure them that I feel for them that profound and true respect which a feeling soul entertains for truth and virtue.

Are the same penalties equally useful in all times?

Such fatal and legalised iniquities as have been referred to have been approved of by even the wisest men and practised by even the freest republics, owing to their having regarded society rather as an aggregate[236] of families than as one of individuals. Suppose there to be 100,000 individuals, or 20,000 families, of five persons each, including its representative head: if the association is constituted by families, it will consist of 20,000 men and 80,000 slaves; if it be an association of individuals, it will consist of 100,000 citizens, and not a single slave. In the first case there will be a republic, formed of 20,000 little sovereignties; in the second the republican spirit will breathe, not only in the market-places and meetings of the people, but also within the domestic walls, wherein lies so great a part of human happiness or misery. In the first case, also, as laws and customs are the result of the habitual sentiments of the members of the republicthat is, of the heads of familiesthe monarchical spirit will gradually introduce itself, and its effects will only be checked by the conflicting interests of individuals, not by a feeling that breathes liberty and equality. Family spirit is a spirit of detail and confined to facts of trifling importance. But the spirit which regulates communities is master of general principles, overlooks the totality of facts, and combines them into kinds and classes, of importance to the welfare of the greater number. In the community of families sons remain in the power of the head of the family so long as he lives, and are obliged to look forward to his death for an existence dependent on the laws alone. Accustomed to submission and fear in the[237] freshest and most vigorous time of life, when their feelings are less modified by that timidity, arising from experience, which men call moderation, how shall they withstand those obstacles in the way of virtue which vice ever opposes, in that feeble and failing period of life when despair of living to see the fruit of their labours hinders them from making vigorous changes? 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. In methods of trial the use of torture is contrary to sound reason. Humanity cries out against the practice and insists on its abolition.

The country in which the first attempt was made to apply his principles to practice was Russia, where Catharine II. was anxious to establish a uniform[33] penal code, based on the liberal ideas of the time, which then found more favour in St. Petersburg than they did at Paris. For this purpose in 1767 she summoned to Moscow from all the provinces of Russia those 652 deputies who formed the nearest approach in the history of that country to a Russian Parliament. In the instructions that were read to this assembly, as the basis for the proposed codification of the laws, the principles propounded were couched not only in the spirit but often in the very words of the author of the Crimes and Punishments. The following are examples:

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.

It is remarkable that a book which has done more for law reform than any other before or since should have been written by a man who was not a lawyer by profession, who was totally unversed in legal practice, and who was only twenty-six when he attacked a system of law which had on its side all authority, living and dead. Hume was not twenty-seven when[4] he published his Treatise on Human Nature, nor was Berkeley more than twenty-six when he published his Principles of Human Knowledge. The similar precocity displayed by Beccaria is suggestive, therefore, of the inquiry, how far the greatest revolutions in the thoughts or customs of the world have been due to writers under thirty years of age.

A childs simple philosophy of punishment therefore is after all the correct one, when it tells you without hesitation that the reason a man is punished for a bad action is simply because he deserves it. The notion of desert in punishment is based entirely on feelings of the justice of resentment. So that the[83] primary aim of legal punishment is precisely the same as may be shown historically to have been its origin, namely, the regulation by society of the wrongs of individuals. In all early laws and societies distinct traces may be seen of the transition of the vendetta, or right of private revenge, from the control of the person or family injured by a crime to that of the community at large. The latter at first decided only the question of guilt, whilst leaving its punishment to the pleasure of the individuals directly concerned by it. Even to this day in Turkey sentences of death for murder run as follows: So-and-so is condemned to death at the demand of the victims heirs; and such sentences are sometimes directed to be carried out in their presence.[45] By degrees the community obtained control of the punishment as well, and thus private might became public right, and the resentment of individual injuries the Retributive Justice of the State.

Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long[9] and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that philosophical indolence which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.[6]

Your letter has raised in me sentiments of the deepest esteem, of the greatest gratitude, and the most tender friendship; nor can I confess to you how honoured I feel at seeing my work translated into the language of a nation which is the mistress and illuminator of Europe. I owe everything to French books. They first raised in my mind feelings of humanity which had been suffocated by eight years of a fanatical education. I cannot express to you the pleasure with which I have read your translation; you have embellished[5] the original, and your arrangement seems more natural than, and preferable to, my own. You had no need to fear offending the authors vanity: in the first place, because a book that treats of the cause of humanity belongs, when once published, to the world and all nations equally; and as to myself in particular, I should have made little progress in the philosophy of the heart, which I place above that of the intellect, had I not acquired the courage to see and love the truth. I hope that the fifth edition, which will appear shortly, will be soon exhausted, and I assure you that in the sixth I will follow entirely, or nearly so, the arrangement of your translation, which places the truth in a better light than I have sought to place it in.