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Capital punishment makes an impression in prospect which, with all its force, does not fully meet that ready spirit of forgetfulness, so natural to man even in his most important concerns, and so liable to be accelerated by his passions. As a general rule, men are startled by the sight of violent sufferings, but not for long, and therefore such impressions are wont so to transform them as to make of ordinary men either Persians or Spartans; but in a free and settled government impressions should rather be frequent than strong.

There is a general theorem which is most useful for calculating the certainty of a fact, as, for instance, the force of the proofs in the case of a given crime:

CHAPTER XXXVIII. FALSE IDEAS OF UTILITY. In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. I have become acquainted, says a released convict, with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls. The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the mans vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.[56] It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder. The very severity of a punishment leads men to dare so much the more to escape it, according to the greatness of the evil in prospect; and many crimes are thus committed to avoid the penalty of a single one. Countries and times where punishments have been most severe have ever been those where the bloodiest and most inhuman deeds have been committed, the same spirit of ferocity that guided the hand of the legislator having guided also that of the parricide and assassin; on the throne dictating iron[168] laws for the villanous souls of slaves to obey, and in the obscurity of private life urging to the slaughter of tyrants, only to create fresh ones in their stead.

There is no doubt that Beccaria always had a strong preference for the contemplative as opposed to the practical and active life, and that but for his friend Pietro Verri he would probably never have distinguished himself at all. He would have said with Plato that a wise man should regard life as a storm, and hide himself behind a wall till it be overpast. He almost does say this in his essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination, published soon after the Crimes and Punishments. He advises his reader to stand aside and look on at the rest of mankind as they run about in their blind confusion; to make his relations with them as few as possible; and if he will do them any good, to do it at that distance which will prevent them from upsetting him or drawing him away in their own vortex. Let him in happy contemplation enjoy in silence the few moments that separate his birth from his disappearance. Let him leave men to fight,[12] to hope, and to die; and with a smile both at himself and at them, let him repose softly on that enlightened indifference with regard to human things which will not deprive him of the pleasure of being just and beneficent, but which will spare him from those useless troubles and changes from evil to good that vex the greater part of mankind. Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example,[50] Goldsmith could not avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.[31] Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!

Any action that is not included between the two above-indicated extremes can only be called a crime or punished as such by those who find their interest in so calling it. The uncertainty of these limits has produced in different nations a system of ethics contrary to the system of laws, has produced many actual systems of laws at total variance with one another, and a quantity of laws which expose even the wisest man to the severest penalties. Consequently the words virtue and vice have become of vague and variable meaning, and from the uncertainty thus surrounding individual existence, listlessness and a fatal apathy have spread over political communities.