Chapter 20b


June 23, 2022

Part 8:

The benefit accruing to an injured person from the punishment of an offender consists in his being secured in future against a recurrence of the same injury from that offender, or from others.

There are 3 ways of preventing this recurrence:

  1. By removing the offender
  2. By depriving him of the power of doing harm
  3. By compelling him to better habits of thought or action

It is not every kind of punishment, which can produce such effects; it must be open and conspicuous, to operate as an example, that may deter others from the commission of the same crimes.

A vindictive punishment, inflicted by an injured individual, or by any other person, when it is restrained by bounds and limitations of this kind, has nothing unlawful in it considering the law of nature by itself, apart from all human and divine institutions, and every adventitious circumstance, that may create a deviation from the primitive dictates of nature.

It may be inflicted by any other individual, as well as by the injured person: for it is conformable to nature, that one man should assist another. But as our judgment is apt to be biassed by our affections, in cases, where our interest is concerned; since the formation of families into states, judges have been appointed, and invested with the power of punishing the guilty, whereby the natural liberty of personal redress, originally allowed to individuals, was abolished, or at least abridged.

It is only in places, on the seas for instance, where no judicial remedy can be obtained, that this natural liberty continues in force. There is a circumstance related of Julius Caesar, applicable to this subject. While he was only in a private station, being taken prisoner by some pirates, after he had redeemed himself by a sum of money, he applied to the proconsul for redress. But his application being neglected, he fitted out a certain number of ships, attacked and defeated the pirates, and ordered them all to be crucified.

The practice of private individuals, exercising punishment, was the origin of single combats, so familiar to the Germans before the introduction of Christianity, and not yet sufficiently laid aside. We are informed by Velleius Paterculus, in his second book, that the Germans were surprised to see the forms of Roman jurisprudence, and those disputes, which they themselves decided by the sword, settled by law.

By the Jewish law, the nearest in blood to the deceased were allowed to kill a murderer, if taken beyond the places of refuge. And the Jewish interpreters observe, that in GENERAL the infliction of punishment, as a retaliation for murder, it intrusted to no hand, but that of the judge: as it is difficult for an individual in229 his own case to moderate his resentment.

The same custom of allowing individuals to avenge their own wrongs prevailed among the ancient Greeks, as we find from the words of Theoclymenes, in Homer’s Odyssey. But it prevailed most in countries, where public courts of justice were not established. From hence St. Augustin defines those wars to be just, which are intended to avenge injuries. And Plato, in his twelfth book ON A COMMONWEALTH, justifies the prolongation of hostilities, till the aggressor is reduced to submit to just, and equitable terms.

Part 9:

General utility which was considered as the third end proposed by punishment, may be divided into the same number of parts, as the benefit accruing from thence to individuals.

For these are the objects in view, either to prevent the individual, who has injured one person, from doing injury to others: an object which can be accomplished only by removing the offender, disarming him of the means of farther injury, or by reforming him: or it may be inflicted to deter others from being allured, by an example of impunity, to commit acts of molestation or enmity. And the infliction of punishment, for such reasons, is a RIGHT granted by the law of nature to every individual. Upon this principle, Plutarch observes in the life of Pelopidas, that good men are designed by nature for the office of perpetual magistracy, and superiority belongs to those, in whom the characters of truth and justice unite.

But as it requires a painful degree of patience to examine into facts, and no inconsiderable share of skill and equity to affix the extent of punishments;

in order to prevent quarrels from arising through the presuming conceit, which every man entertains of his own wisdom, and to which others are averse to yield; in all well regulated communities, it has been usual to select for the tribunals of justice those, who were deemed worthy of such honour, or likely to become so, from their integrity and wisdom. Democritus has said, there would have been no occasion for laws to prevent every man from living according to his own humour, if one had not done injury to another. For envy was the origin of strife. But as we have just observed, that it happens, in the case of revenge, so in this kind of punishment, inflicted for the sake of example, there are traces and remains of ancient law, in those places, and among those persons, that are subject to no230 CIVIL jurisdiction; and in certain other cases besides. Thus any Hebrew, according to the customs of that people, if he should turn away from God, or from the law of God, or should seduce others to false worship, might immediately be put to death by any one whatsoever.

The Hebrews call that an act of ZEAL, which was first done by Phinehas, and which afterwards became a custom. Thus Mattathias slew a Jew, who was polluting himself with Grecian rites. In the same manner, in the book commonly called the third book of Maccabees, it is related that three hundred other Jews were put to death by their own countrymen. Nor could any other pretext be assigned for stoning Stephen, and conspiring against Paul. Philo, and Josephus abound in instances of this kind. There are many countries where we may trace the remains of primitive law, in the plenary power allowed to masters over their slaves, and to parents over their children, extending even to inflict the punishment of death. So the Ephori of Sparta might put a citizen to death without the formality of trial. From what has been said, it is easy to infer what punishment the law of nature authorises, and how far it has remained in force.

Part 10: Did the law of the Gospel confine that liberty within closer bounds?

Some things are allowed by natural and civil law but should be forbidden by the divine law, owing to its great perfection, and the superiority of its rewards over any thing that human nature can bestow.

To the attainment of which it is not unreasonable that virtues should be required, far exceeding the simple precepts of nature. Those kinds of correction that leave neither any mark of infamy, nor any permanent injury, but are suited to the age, or other circumstances of the sufferer, if inflicted by those, who derive such a permission from human laws, for instance by parents, guardians, or masters, contain nothing repugnant to the precepts of the Gospel, as may be clearly understood from the nature of the thing itself. For they are remedies to the mind no less harmless than medicines ungrateful to the palate are to the body. But as to revenge the case is different. For the infliction of punishment, only to gratify resentment, so far from being conformable to the Gospel, has been shewn above to be repugnant even to the law of nature.

231 The Jewish law indeed not only forbids the cherishing of hatred against a neighbour, that is, one of the same country and people, but requires certain common acts of kindness to be bestowed even upon enemies of that description. The Gospel therefore, comprehending all men under the appellation of neighbour, not only forbids us to hurt our enemies, but commands us to do them good; a commandment clearly stated in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Yet the law permitted the Jews to seek revenge for injuries of a more grievous kind, not with their own hands, but by appealing to the judge. But Christ does not give us the same permission, as appears from that opposition which he makes between the permissions of former times, and those of his own law. “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye—but I say unto you, love your enemies, etc.”

For although what follows relates peculiarly to the repelling of injury, and, in some measure, abridges this permission, yet it passes a much greater censure upon revenge, rejecting it as an indulgence suitable only to a more imperfect, and carnal state.

To inflict punishment by way of retaliation was disapproved of even by those of the Jews, who were distinguished for their worth and wisdom; because they regarded not only the LETTER, but the PURPOSE and SPIRIT of the law. This appears from Philo, in whose writings we find the Jews of Alexandria, upon the calamity of Flaccus, their persecutor, addressing themselves to God in the following language, “We do not rejoice, O Lord, in the calamity or punishment of an enemy, being taught by thy holy laws to feel for the miseries of men.” And in this case we may apply that general command given by Christ to forgive all who have offended or injured us, that is, neither to do, nor to wish them evil, through resentment of the evil they have done to us.

But what can be said of revenge, not as regarding the past, but as providing security for the future? Here too Christ requires of his followers the same disposition to pardon injuries, particularly, if the offender shews any probable signs of repentance. Luke xvii. 3. Eph. iv. 32. Col. iii. 13. In those passages a full remission is intended, such a remission as restores the offender to his former situation of friendship or confidence: and consequently nothing can be required of him under the name of punishment. Besides, if there were no such marks of repentance, the reparation232 of a loss is not to be pursued with too much rigour; a doctrine inferred from the precept of Christ enjoining us to give up the garment along with the cloak.

But if it is likely that connivance at an offence will be attended with imminent inconvenience and even danger to ourselves, we should be contented with such securities as may be effectual, and at the same time operate with as little prejudice as possible to the offender. For even among the Jews, the law of retaliation was not in use, as we are informed by Josephus, and other writers of that nation. But in addition to the expence incurred, which the law treats of as a separate point, the injured party usually received a pecuniary fine instead of retaliation; the repayment of expences being considered simply as a restitution, and not a penalty.

It remains now to consider punishment, as providing for the PUBLIC and not INDIVIDUAL security, which is accomplished either by removing the guilty person out of the way or by restraining him from doing farther mischief, or by deterring others through the severity of example, none of which means it has been clearly proved were abolished by Christ; for in giving his precepts he affirmed that he destroyed no part of the law.

The law of Moses remained in force as long as the Jewish Polity existed. It strictly enjoined magistrates to punish murder and other similar crimes.

But if the precepts of Christ could exist in conjunction with the law of Moses, as far as it imposed capital punishments, surely they may exist in conjunction with human laws, which in this respect are but an imitation of the divine laws.

Part 11:

Some, in support of an opposite opinion, allege the supreme mercy of God, as it is displayed in the new covenant, and which is given as an example for men, and for magistrates, in particular, to follow, who, in the exercise of authority, execute the laws of the Deity.

This opinion may in some measure be true, but not to that extent, which the authors of it intend. For the great mercy of God displayed in the new covenant has a peculiar reference to offences against the primitive law, or even against the law of Moses, before the time that men had received a knowledge of the Gospel.

For offences committed after the promulgation of the Gospel, especially if they are accompanied with a hardened obstinacy, are treated with much severer judgments than233 any that were declared by Moses. For God punishes sins of that kind not only in a future state, but in the present life. But for sins of that kind, to obtain the act of mercy and indulgence, the offender must inflict punishment upon himself, not in a slight or trivial manner, but with a heartfelt sorrow, and resolution to sin no more.

In the same manner it is maintained that if men are actuated by repentance, they are ENTITLED to impunity. We do not say that men are never actuated by sincere repentance; but it is not every kind of avowal or acknowledgment, by which God is moved to remit the WHOLE of a punishment, as appears from the case of David. As the supreme judge therefore might dispense with the full penalty of the law, inflicting death, and yet exercise no inconsiderable severity upon offenders, so now he may dispense with the sentence of eternal death, at the same time leaving the sinner to find an early grave by the stroke of some calamity, or by the hand of human justice.

Part 12-13:

Another objection made against capital punishments is that such a kind of sentence and execution is cutting off a criminal from all possibility of repentance.

But those, who make the objection, must know, that in cases of that kind, venerable and upright judges use the greatest precautions, and suffer no one to be hurried away to execution, without a reasonable time allowed for reflection and deep abhorrence of his crime: a repentance, which though prevented by the interposing hand of death from producing the fruits of righteousness, we have reason to suppose, from the case of the thief pardoned on the cross, may be accepted with God.

But if on the other hand it be said that longer life might have been of more avail to serious repentance, we may observe that, in some cases, the reply of Seneca may be made, that to men of that description death is often the greatest blessing which can be bestowed; for, in the words of Eusebius, their career of wickedness cannot otherwise be shortened, or reformed. These in addition to the preceding arguments in the former part of this treatise may be deemed a sufficient answer to those, who assert that all capital punishments, and even all punishments, without exception, are abolished by the precepts of Jesus.

The Apostle, consigning to the office of kings the use of the sword, as an exercise of his divine commission to avenge all wrongs, instructs us to pray for kings, that, as true Christians, in their royal capacity, they may be a protection to the innocent. An end, which even after the introduction of the gospel, could not easily be obtained, owing to the depravity of mankind, if the violence of some were not restrained by the exemplary punishment of others. Such authority is the more necessary, when even in the midst of so many examples and punishments, the lives of the innocent are scarcely secure.

Diodorus says that sentences of death have been changed for that of perpetual labour. This was followed by Sabacon, king of Egypt, a prince renowned for his piety.

Balsamon observes that the penal laws of Rome, inflicting death, were most of them changed by the Christian emperors of later times, and other kinds of punishment were substituted, that the guilty might receive deeper impressions of repentance, and their punishment operate as a more durable example.

Part 14:

It is unsafe for a private Christian, whether from motives of personal interest, or from those of the public good, to take upon himself the punishment of an offender, and particularly to inflict death.

IN SOME CASES, it may be allowed by the law of nations.

A permission, that has given rise to the laudable practice, prevailing in some countries of furnishing adventurers with public instructions and commissions to chase and capture pirates, wherever they may be found. But those adventurers may be considered as discharging a public duty rather than as acting upon their own authority.

XV. A custom not unlike to which prevails in many places, of not allowing individuals to bring criminal charges against others at their own pleasure: that office belonging to persons invested with public authority to undertake it. So that no one can contribute towards shedding the blood of another, but as an act of necessary duty. In reference to this custom, a canon of the council of Eliberis excluded from the communion any believer who had been instrumental in causing the proscription or death of another.


It is proper now to consider whether all wicked acts are of that kind, which are punishable by human laws. In reply to which we may answer that they certainly are not.—In the first place, mere acts of the mind, or criminal intentions, though by subsequent confession, or some other accident, they may come to the knowledge of others, are not punishable by human laws. Because, as it was proved in a former part of this treatise, it is not consonant to the law of nature, that INTENTIONS ONLY should give rise to any right, or obligation amongst men. And in this sense the maxim of the Roman law is to be taken, THAT NO ONE DESERVES PUNISHMENT FOR MERE THOUGHTS. Yet this does not prevent intentions, when they have an influence upon the conduct, from being considered as actual deeds, and equally deserving of punishment.

XIX. In the second place, even outward acts, cannot be punished by men where they arise through some inevitable infirmity of human nature. For although there can be no sin, except where there is a freedom of will, yet to be at all times free from all infirmity and sin, is more than can be expected from the condition of man. So that Sopater, Hierocles and Seneca among the Philosophers; Philo among the Jews; Thucydides among the historians; and innumerable writers among Christians have maintained that sin is interwoven with our very nature. Nay indeed, a doubt may be entertained whether such acts can rightly and properly be called sins. For though seeming to be voluntary actions, they will be found, when minutely considered, not to proceed from a free and deliberate exercise of the will. “Laws, says Plutarch in the life of Solon, should be framed to suit possible cases, the legislator may obtain every beneficial end by punishing a few offenders, where the indiscriminate punishment of multitudes would be attended with no good effect.”

There are some actions, which though not imputable to human nature itself, are inevitable consequences of the influence of bodily habits on the mind. Actions like these are punishable in human courts, owing to the criminality of voluntary contracting, or of not sufficiently guarding against, those habits.

236 XX. In the third place, human courts of justice cannot take cognizance of those offences, which neither directly nor indirectly, affect the public or individuals. For no reason can be assigned, why such offences should not be left to the judgments of God, whose all-seeing eye must know them, whose equity will weigh them, and whose power can punish them. It would be unnecessary therefore, and presumptuous in human tribunals to assume such decisions. However we must except from this rule those corrective kinds of punishment, designed for the reformation of offenders, even where their conduct is no way injurious to others.

Neither are those actions punishable, which are directly opposite to the virtues of compassion, liberality, or gratitude, in the performance of which virtues natural justice allows of no compulsion.

XXI. The point, necessarily to be considered next, is the opinion, whether it is lawful some times to grant pardon. For the Stoics maintain it not to be lawful, as may be seen from a fragment in Stobaeus, under the title of Magistracy, from Cicero’s speech for Murena, and towards the conclusion of Seneca’s books on Clemency; but their arguments are fallacious, and unsubstantial. They say “that pardon is the remission of a penalty, that OUGHT to be paid; but a wise man does every thing, which he OUGHT to do.” Here the fallacy lies in the use of the word OUGHT. For if it means that an offender owes a penalty, that is, that he may be punished without injustice, it will not necessarily follow that the person who does not punish him, is doing what he ought not to do. But if the word be taken to imply that a good man, or a wise man, ought at all events, to exact the penalty, it may be observed in reply that THIS does not always happen, and therefore, in this sense, the penalty or punishment may be considered, not as a debt, but only a permission. And this will hold good, both before and after the establishment of penal laws.

XXII. Before the establishment of penal laws, punishment, beyond all doubt, might be inflicted; because by the law of nature, every offender made himself subject to punishment; but it is not a natural and inevitable consequence of its being lawful, that it should be enforced. For this depends upon the connection between the ends, for which punishments were established, and the punishments themselves.

If the ends proposed therefore are237 not immediately necessary, in a moral point of view, or if other ends of a different kind, but not less wise and salutary should be devised, or that the ends originally designed may be obtained by some other means, in all these cases, the right of punishment may be saved, there being no immediate occasion to inflict it. Thus for instance, where an offence is known to very few, there can be no immediate occasion for a public punishment, by way of exemplary exposure, which in some cases might be even injurious to society rather than productive of advantage.

Upon which Cicero in a letter to his brother makes a pertinent remark, respecting one Zeuxis, observing, that “had he once been brought into court, he could not have been released, but there was no necessity that a search should be made for him, in order to bring him to trial."—In the next place the right and end of punishment may be dispensed with, where a man’s own services, or those of his family are sufficient to outweigh the consideration of his offences.

“For, in the words of Seneca, an act of kindness eclipses the fault of an injury."—And in the last place, where reproof operates upon an offender, as a means of correction and amendment, or where the injured party is satisfied with an acknowledgment of the offence, the occasion for punishment is done away. It was this motive to clemency, which the son of David had in view, where he observes that it behoves the righteous to be merciful. For as all punishment, especially of the more severe cast, has in it some thing, which tho’ not repugnant to justice, is at variance, at least, with charity, reason easily suffers us to forbear inflicting it, unless that forbearance is opposed by some weightier, juster, and more undeniable motive of charity.

XXIII. Cases may occur where it is absolutely necessary to inflict punishment, as upon notorious, and atrocious criminals, or where it is for the public good, to dispense with that severity, or where the judicial authorities may use their own discretion in mitigating or enforcing the sentence of the law. Upon which Seneca pertinently remarks, that the exercise of lenity should always be an act of free deliberation. As to the disputes of the Stoics on these points, they are, in the opinion of Cicero and others, debates upon words rather than things: consequently they are less worthy of philosophical contemplation.

Part 24

There seems to be a greater difficulty in deciding what is to be done, subsequently to the establishment of penal laws; because a legislator is bound, in some measure, by his own laws.

But this, as it was proved in a former part of this treatise, is only true with respect to the legislator, in his individual capacity, as a private member of the state, but not in his public character, in which he represents the whole Majesty and Authority of the state itself. As such, he can entirely repeal the law: for it is the nature of all human laws, to depend upon the will of the maker, not only for their origin, but also for their duration.

Yet a lawgiver should not, upon trivial grounds, repeal a statute, for, in so doing he would be acting against the rules of sovereign justice. But as the legislator has power to repeal the whole of a law, so in the case of some particular person, or individual action, he may relax its rigour, allowing it to remain in other respects, as it stood before.

As an example of this, the actions of the Deity may be cited, who, according to the testimony of Lactantius, in enacting his laws, did not deprive himself of the exercise of his mercy, to grant pardons. “The Emperor, says Augustin, may recall his sentence, pardon and release a criminal; because, as he further explains it, the person who has power to make laws, is not INVARIABLY bound to observe them.” Yet this privilege of departing from the letter must never be used but for the most important reasons. Although such reasons cannot be precisely defined, yet it is certain that, since the establishment of civil law, more weighty ones are required to authorise such pardons, than before that period. Because punishments have derived an additional sanction from the authority of the law, which ought to be respected and observed.