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Of Crimes and Punishments
Cesare Beccaria

Of crimes which disturb the Public Tranquillity.

Another class of crimes are those which disturb the public tranquillity and the quiet of the citizens; such as tumults and riots in the public streets, which are intended for commerce and the passage of the inhabitants; the discourses of fanatics, which rouse the passions of the curious multitude, and gain strength from the number of their hearers, who, though deaf to calm and solid reasoning, are always affected by obscure and mysterious enthusiasm.

The illumination of the streets during the night at the public expense, guards stationed in different quarters of the city, the plain and moral discourses of religion reserved for the silence and tranquillity of churches, and protected by authority, and harangues in support of the interest of the public, delivered only at the general meetings of the nation, in parliament, or where the sovereign resides, are all means to prevent the dangerous effects of the misguided passions of the people. These should be the principal objects of the vigilance of a magistrate, and which the French call police; but if this magistrate should act in an arbitrary manner, and not in conformity to the code of laws) which ought to be in the hands of every member of the community, he opens a door to tyranny, which always surrounds the confines of political liberty.

I do not know of any exception to this general axiom, that Every member of society should know when he is criminal and when innocent. If censors, and, in general, arbitrary magistrates, be necessary in any government, it proceeds from some fault in the constitution. The uncertainty of crimes hath sacrificed more victims to secret tyranny than have ever suffered by public and solemn cruelty.

What are, in general, the proper punishments for crimes? Is the punishment of death really useful, or necessary for the safety or good order of society? Are tortures and torments consistent with justice, or do they answer the end proposed by the laws? Which is the best method of preventing crimes? Are the same punishments equally useful at all times? What influence have they on manners? These problems should be solved with that geometrical precision, which the mist of sophistry, the seduction of eloquence, and the timidity of doubt, are unable to resist. if I have no other merit than that of having first presented to my country, with a greater degree of evidence, what other nations have written and are beginning to practice, I shall account myself fortunate; but if by supporting the rights of mankind and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessing and tears of transport will be a sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.


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