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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On the Power of Punishments
By Montesquieu (1689–1755)
 
From ‘The Spirit of Laws’: Translation of Thomas Nugent

EXPERIENCE shows that in countries remarkable for the lenity of their laws, the spirit of the inhabitants is as much affected by slight penalties as in other countries by severer punishments.  1
  If an inconveniency or abuse arises in the State, a violent government endeavors suddenly to redress it; and instead of putting the old laws in execution, it establishes some cruel punishment, which instantly puts a stop to the evil. But the spring of government hereby loses its elasticity: the imagination grows accustomed to the severe as well as to the milder punishment; and as the fear of the latter diminishes, they are soon obliged in every case to have recourse to the former. Robberies on the highway were grown common in some countries. In order to remedy this evil, they invented the punishment of breaking upon the wheel: the terror of which put a stop for a while to this mischievous practice; but soon after, robberies on the highways became as common as ever.  2
  Desertion, in our days, was grown to a very great height; in consequence of which it was judged proper to punish those delinquents with death; and yet their number did not diminish. The reason is very natural: a soldier, accustomed to venture his life, despises, or affects to despise, the danger of losing it; he is habituated to the fear of shame: it would have been, therefore, much better to have continued a punishment which branded him with infamy for life; the penalty was pretended to be increased, while it really was diminished.  3
  Mankind must not be governed with too much severity: we ought to make a prudent use of the means which nature has given us to conduct them. If we inquire into the cause of all human corruptions, we shall find that they proceed from the impunity of criminals, and not from the moderation of punishments.  4
  Let us follow nature, who has given shame to man for his scourge, and let the heaviest part of the punishment be the infamy attending it.  5
  But if there be some countries where shame is not a consequence of punishment, this must be owing to tyranny, which has inflicted the same penalties on villains and honest men.  6
  And if there are others where men are deterred only by cruel punishments, we may be sure that this must, in a great measure, arise from the violence of the government, which has used such penalties for slight transgressions.  7
  It often happens that a legislator, desirous of remedying an abuse, thinks of nothing else: his eyes are open only to this object, and shut to its inconveniences. When the abuse is redressed, you see only the severity of the legislator;—yet there remains an evil in the State, that has sprung from this severity: the minds of the people are corrupted and become habituated to despotism.  8
  Lysander having obtained a victory over the Athenians, the prisoners were ordered to be tried, in consequence of an accusation brought against that nation of having thrown all the captives of two galleys down a precipice, and of having resolved, in full assembly, to cut off the hands of those whom they should chance to make prisoners. The Athenians were therefore all massacred, except Adymantes, who had opposed this decree. Lysander reproached Philocles, before he was put to death, with having depraved the people’s minds, and given lessons of cruelty to all Greece.  9
  “The Argives” (says Plutarch), “having put fifteen hundred of their citizens to death, the Athenians ordered sacrifices of expiation, that it might please the gods to turn the hearts of the Athenians from so cruel a thought.”  10
  There are two sorts of corruption: one when the people do not observe the laws; the other when they are corrupted by the laws,—an incurable evil, because it is in the very remedy itself.  11
 
 
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