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The produce of the extremes is equal to the produce of the means: but two sacks of corn stolen, are not, to those who stole them, as the loss of their lives is to the interest of the person from whom they were stolen.
The prior of ——, from whom two of his domestic servants in the country had stolen two measures of corn, has just had the two delinquents hanged. This execution has cost him more than all his harvest has been worth to him; and since that time he has not been able to get a servant.
If the laws had ordained that such as stole their master's corn should work in his grounds, during their lives in fetters, and with a bell at their neck fixed to a collar, the prior would have been a considerable gainer by it.
"Terror should be preventively employed against crimes;" very true: but work, on compulsion, and lasting shame, strike more terror than the gallows.
There was, some months ago at London, a malefactor who had been condemned to be transported to America to work there at the sugar works with the negroes. In England, any criminal, as in many other countries, may get a petition presented to the king, either to obtain a free pardon, or a mitigation of the sentence. This one presented a petition to be hanged, alleging that he mortally hated work, and that he had rather suffer strangling for a minute, than to make sugar all his lifetime.
Others may think otherwise, every one to his taste. But it has been already said, and cannot be too often repeated, that a man hanged is good for nothing, and that punishments ought to be useful.
Some years ago, in Turkey, two young men were condemned to be impaled, for having, (without taking off their caps,) stood to see the procession of the Lama pass by. The Emperor of China, who is a man of very good sense, said, that for his part, he should have condemned them to walk bareheaded, in every public procession, for three months afterwards.
"Proportion punishments to crimes," says the Marquis Beccaria; but those who made the laws were not geometricians.
I hate the laws of Draco, which punish equally crimes and faults, wickedness and folly. Let us,—especially in all litigations,—in all dissensions, in all quarrels,—distinguish the aggressor from the party offended, the oppressor from the oppressed. An offensive war is the procedure of a tyrant; he who defends himself is in the character of a just man.
As I was absorbed in these reflections, the Man of Forty Crowns came to me all in tears. I asked, with emotion, if his son, who was by right to live twenty-three years, was dead?
"No," said he, "the little one is very well, and so is my wife; but I was summoned to give evidence against a miller, who has been put to the torture, ordinary and extraordinary, and who has been found innocent. I saw him faint away under redoubled tortures. I heard the crash of his bones. His outcries and screams of agony are not yet out of my ears; they haunt me. I shed tears for pity, and shudder with horror."
His tears drew mine. I trembled, too, like him; for I have naturally an extreme sensibility.
My memory then represented to me the dreadful fate of the Calas family! A virtuous mother in irons,—her children in tears, and forced to fly, her house given up to pillage,—a respectable father of a family broken with torture, agonizing on a wheel, and expiring in the flames; a son loaded with chains, and dragged before the judges, one of whom said to him:
"We have just now broken your father on the wheel; we will break you alive too."
I remembered the family of Sirven, who one of my friends met with among the mountains covered with ice, as they were flying from the persecution of a judge as ignorant as he was unjust. This judge (he told me) had condemned an innocent family to death on a supposition, without the least shadow of proof, that the father and mother, assisted by two of their daughters, had cut the throat of the third, and drowned her besides, for going to mass. I saw in judgments of this kind, at once an excess of stupidity, of injustice, and of barbarity.
The Man of Forty Crowns joined with me in pitying human nature. I had in my pocket the discourse of an attorney-general of Dauphiny, which turned upon very important matters. I read to him the following passages:
"Certainly those must have been truly great men, who, at first, dared to take upon themselves the office of governing their fellow creatures, and to set their shoulders to the burthen of the public welfare; who, for the sake of the good they meant to do to men, exposed themselves to their ingratitude, and for the public repose renounced their own; who made themselves, as one may say, middle-men between their fellow-creatures and Providence, to compose for them, by artifice, a happiness which Providence seems otherwise to have refused to them by any other means.
"What magistrate, was ever so careless of his responsibilities and duties to humanity as to entertain such ideas? Could he, in the solitude of his closet, without shuddering with horror and pity, cast his eyes on those papers, the unfortunate monuments of gilt or of innocence? Should he not think he hears a plaintive voice and groans issue from those fatal writings, and press him to decide the destiny of a subject, of a husband, of a father, or of a whole family? What judge can be so unmerciful (if he is charged with but one single process) as to pass in cold blood before the door of a prison? Is it I (must he say to himself) who detain in that execrable place my fellow-creature, perhaps my countryman, one of humankind, in short? Is it I that confine him every day,—that shut those execrable doors upon him? Perhaps despair will have seized him. He sends up to heaven my name loaded with his curses; and doubtless calls to witness against me that great Judge of the world, who observes us, and will judge us both."
"Here a dreadful sight presents itself on a sudden to my eyes: The judge, tired with interrogating bywords, has recourse to interrogation by tortures. Impatient in his inquiries and researches, and perhaps irritated at their inutility, he has brought to him torches, chains, levers, and all those instruments invented for producing pain. An executioner comes to interpose in the functions of the magistracy, and terminates by violence a judicial interrogation.
"Gentle philosophy! Thou who never seekest truth but with attention and patience, couldst thou expect, in an age that takes thy name, that such instruments would be employed to discover that truth?
"Can it be really true, that our laws approve this inconceivable method, and that custom consecrates it?
"Their laws imitate their prejudices; their public punishments are as cruel as their private vengeance; and the acts of their reason are scarce less unmerciful than those of their passions. What can be the cause of this strange contrariety? It is because our prejudices are ancient, and our morality new; it is because we are as penetrated with our opinions as we are inattentive to our ideas; it is because our passion for pleasures hinders us from reflecting on our wants, and that we are more eager to live than to direct ourselves right; it is, in a word, because our morals are gentle without being good; it is because we are polite, and are not so much as humane."
These fragments, which eloquence had dictated to humanity, filled the heart of my friend with a sweet consolation. He admired with tenderness.
"What!" said he, "are such masterpieces as these produced in a province? I had been told that Paris was all the world, or the only place in it."
"It is," said I, "the only place for producing comic operas; but there are at this time, in the provinces, magistrates who think, with the same virtue and express themselves with the same force. Formerly, the oracles of justice, like those of morality, were nothing but matter of mere ridicule. Dr. Balordo declaimed at the bar, and Harlequin in the pulpit. Philosophy has at length come, and has said, 'Do not speak in public, unless to set forth new and useful truths, with the eloquence of sentiment and of reason.'"
But, say the praters, if we have nothing new to say, what then? Why, hold your tongues, replies philosophy. All those vain discourses for parade, that contain nothing but phrases, are like the fire on the eve of St. John's, kindled on that day of the year in which there is the least want of it to heat one's self—it causes no pleasure, and not so much as the ashes of it remain.
Let all France read good books. But notwithstanding all the progress of the human understanding, there are few that read; and among those who sometimes seek instruction, the reading for the most part is very ill chosen. My neighbors, men and women, pass their time, after dinner, at playing an English game, which I have much difficulty to pronounce, since they call it whist. Many good citizens, many thick heads, who take themselves for good heads, tell you, with an air of importance, that books are good for nothing. But, Messieurs, the critics, do not you know that you are governed only by books? Do not you know that the statutes, the military code, and the gospel, are books on which you continually depend? Read; improve yourselves. It is reading alone that invigorates the understanding; conversation dissipates it; play contracts it.
Thus it was that the Man of Forty Crowns proceeded to form, as one may say, his head and his heart. He not only succeeded to the inheritance of his two fair cousins, but he came also to a fortune left by a very distant relation, who had been a sub-farmer of the military hospitals, where he had fattened himself on the strict abstinence to which he had put the wounded soldiers. This man never would marry, he never would own any of his relations. He lived in the height of debauchery, and died at Paris of a surfeit. He was, as any one may see, a very useful member of the state.
Our new philosopher was obliged to go to Paris to get possession of the inheritance of this relative. At first, the farmers of the domain disputed it with him. He had the good luck, however, to gain his cause, and the generosity to give to the poor of his neighborhood, who had not their contingent of forty crowns a year, a part of the spoils of the deceased son of fortune. After which he set himself about satisfying his passion for having a library.
He read every morning and made extracts. In the evening, he consulted the learned to know in what language the serpent had talked to our good mother; whether the soul is in the callous body, or in the pineal gland; whether St. Peter lived five and twenty years at Rome; what specific difference there is between a throne and a dominion; and why the negroes have a flat nose. He proposed to himself, besides, never to govern the state, nor to write any pamphlets against new dramatic pieces. He was called Mr. Andrew, which was his Christian name. Those who have known him, do justice to his modesty and to his qualities, both natural and acquired.
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