An Essay on Crime and Punishment by Cesare Becarria
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public safety; they compare, with the highest satisfaction, the inconsiderable portion of liberty of
which they are deprived, with the sum total sacrificed by others for their security; observing that
they have only given up the pernicious liberty of injuring their fellow-creatures, they bless the
throne, and the laws upon which it is established.
It is false that the sciences have always been prejudicial to mankind. When they were so, the evil
was inevitable. The multiplication of the human species on the face of the earth introduced war,
the rudiments of arts, and the first laws, which were temporary compacts arising from necessity,
and perishing with it. This was the first philosophy, and its few elements were just, as indolence
and want of sagacity, in the early inhabitants of the world, preserved them from error.
But necessities increasing with the number of mankind, stronger and more lasting impressions
were necessary to prevent their frequent relapses into a state of barbarity, which became every
day more fatal. The first religious errors, which peopled the earth with false divinities, and
created a world of invisible beings to govern the visible creation, were of the utmost service to
mankind. The greatest benefactors to humanity were those who dared to deceive, and led pliant
ignorance to the foot of the altar. By presenting to the minds of the vulgar, things out of the reach
of their senses, which fled as they pursued, and always eluded their grasp; which, as they never
comprehended, they never despised, their different passions were united, and attached to a single
object. This was the first transition of all nations from their savage state. Such was the necessary,
and perhaps the only bond of all societies at their first formation. I speak not of the chosen
people of God, to whom the most extraordinary miracles, and the most signal favours, supplied
the place of human policy. But as it is the nature of error to subdivide itself ad infinitum, so the
pretended knowledge which sprung from it transformed mankind into a blind fanatic multitude,
jarring and destroying each other in the labyrinth in which they were inclosed; hence it is not
wonderful, that some sensible and philosophic minds should regret the ancient state of barbarity.
This was the first epocha in which knowledge, or rather opinions, were fatal.
The second may be found in the difficult and terrible passage from error to truth, from darkness
to light. The violent shock between a mass of errors, useful to the few and powerful, and the
truths so important to the many and the weak, with the fermentation of passions excited on that
occasion, were productive of infinite evils to unhappy mortals. In the study of history, whose
principal periods, after certain intervals, much resemble each other, we frequently find, in the
necessary passage from the obscurity of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from tyranny to
liberty, its natural consequence, one generation sacrificed to the happiness of the next. But when
this flame is extinguished, and the world delivered from its evils, truth, after a very slow
progress, sits down with monarchs on the throne, and is worshiped in the assemblies of nations.
Shall we then believe, that light diffused among the people is more destructive than darkness,
and that the knowledge of the relations of things can never be fatal to mankind?
Ignorance may indeed be less fatal than a small degree of knowledge, because this adds, to the
evils of ignorance, the inevitable errors of a confined view of things on this side the bounds of
truth; but a man of enlightened understanding, appointed guardian of the laws, is the greatest