Men oppose the strongest barriers against open tyranny, but they see not the imperceptible insect, which gnaws them away, and makes for the invading stream an opening that is all the more sure by very reason of its concealment from view. It would, therefore, be a mistake to ascribe to one, who only discusses social conventions and their consequences, principles contrary either to natural law or to revelation, for the reason that he does not discuss them. It would be a mistake, when he speaks of a state of war as anterior to a state of society, to understand it in the sense of Hobbes, as meaning that no obligation nor duty is prior to the existence of society, instead of understanding it as a fact due to the corruption of human nature and the want of any expressed sanction. It would be a mistake to impute it as a fault to a writer who is considering the results of the social compact[115] that he does not admit them as pre-existent to the formation of the compact itself.


I conclude with this reflection, that the scale of punishments should be relative to the condition of a nation. On the hardened minds of a people scarcely emerged from the savage state the impressions made should be stronger and more sensible. One needs a[169] thunderbolt for the destruction of a fierce lion that faces round at the shot of a gun. But in proportion as mens minds become softened in the social state, their sensibility increases, and commensurate with that increase should be the diminution of the force of punishment, if it be desired to maintain any proportion between the object and the sensation that attends it.


The Translator has abstained from all criticism or comment of the original, less from complete agreement[vi] with all its ideas than from the conviction that annotations are more often vexatious than profitable, and are best left to the reader to make for himself. There is scarcely a sentence in the book on which a commentator might not be prolix.

But although the laws of every country thus recognise in different degrees the retributive nature of punishment, by their constant attention to its apportionment to crime, there is another corollary of the desirability of a just proportion between the two, which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, accepted: namely, that from the point of view of the public interest, which in theory is the only legal view, it is no mitigation of a crime that it is a first offence, nor any aggravation of one that it is the second.

Such are the fatal arguments employed, if not clearly, at least vaguely, by men disposed to crimes, among whom, as we have seen, the abuse of religion is more potent than religion itself.

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.

Of what kind, then, will be the punishments due to the crimes of nobles, whose privileges form so great a part of the laws of different countries? I will not here inquire whether this traditional distinction between nobles and commons be advantageous in a government, or necessary in a monarchy; nor whether it be true that a nobility forms an intermediate power in restraint of the excesses of the two[207] extremes, and not rather a caste which, in slavery to itself and to others, confines all circulation of merit and hope to a very narrow circle, like those fertile and pleasant oases scattered among the vast sand-deserts of Arabia; nor whether, supposing it to be true that inequality is inevitable and useful in society, it be also true that such inequality should subsist between classes rather than individuals, and should remain with one part of the body politic rather than circulate through the whole; whether it should rather perpetuate itself than be subject to constant self-destruction and renovation. I will confine myself to the punishments proper for nobles, affirming that they should be the same for the greatest citizen as for the least. Every distinction of honour or of riches presupposes, to be legitimate, a prior state of equality, founded on the laws, which regard all subjects as equally dependent on themselves. One must suppose the men, who renounced their natural state of despotic independence, to have said: Let him who is more industrious than his fellows have greater honours, and let his fame be greater among his successors; let him who is more prosperous and honoured hope even to become more so, but let him fear no less than other men to break those conditions by virtue of which he is raised above them. True it is that such decrees did not emanate in a convocation of the human race, but such decrees exist in the[208] eternal relations of things; they do not destroy the supposed advantages of a nobility, though they prevent its abuses; and they make laws feared, by closing every admission to impunity. And if any one shall say that the same punishment inflicted upon a noble and upon a commoner is not really the same, by reason of the diversity of their education, and of the disgrace spread over an illustrious family, I will reply, that the sensibility of the criminal is not the measure of punishment, but the public injury, and that this is all the greater when committed by the more highly favoured man; that equality of punishment can only be so when considered extrinsically, being really different in each individual; and that the disgrace of a family can be removed by public proofs of kindness on the part of the sovereign towards the innocent family of the criminal. And who is there but knows that formalities which strike the senses serve as reasonings with the credulous and admiring populace?