Required Reading, Then and Now

Jefferson LCBTwo things interest me about the two quotes below: First, that original material was written in 1764–in Italy–by Cesare Beccaria in his treatise On Crimes and Punishments. Yes, I know. It sounds like something right out of an NRA press release in response to yet another move by the [name your president] to implement by executive order more “common sense” restrictions on firearms. But no, Beccaria was a political philosopher of some renown, whose work many of the Founders thought important enough to use as source material for the founding documents of this nation. Jefferson, for one, copied the passage below into his Legal Commonplace Book, a sort of journal the author of the Declaration of Independence used to keep track of important ideas–I assume his and of others. Jefferson entered the Beccaria quote into his journal in the original Italian. The first quote below is the English translation of Italian, which appeared in in 1809 and which Jefferson owned.

That brings me to the second interesting thing: The two quotes are essentially the same quote from Beccaria, the first an 1809 translation, the second a 1963 translation. You can find the second all over the Internet. (I originally found it in a book I’m reading, That Every Man Be Armed by Stephen P. Holbrook, an excellent history of the Second Amendment, going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans.)

So you can easily notice the differences, I’ve color keyed the corresponding words in each translation. (And yes, I realize that the second translation has an ellipsis.) I prefer the second, newer, and I’d say more elegant translation. Whatever your preference, Becarria offers up some good food for thought, even today.

“A principal source of errors and injustice are false ideas of utility. For example: that legislator has false ideas of utility who considers particular more than general conveniencies, who had rather command the sentiments of mankind than excite them, who dares say to reason, ‘Be thou a slave;’ who would sacrifice a thousand real advantages to the fear of an imaginary or trifling inconvenience; who would deprive men of the use of fire for fear of their being burnt, and of water for fear of their being drowned; and who knows of no means of preventing evil but by destroying it.

The laws of this nature are those which forbid to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent. Can it be supposed, that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and arbitrary injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance? Does not the execution of this law deprive the subject of that personal liberty, so dear to mankind and to the wise legislator? and does it not subject the innocent to all the disagreeable circumstances that should only fall on the guilty? It certainly makes the situation of the assaulted worse, and of the assailants better, and rather encourages than prevents murder, as it requires less courage to attack unarmed than armed persons.”

Though you can find the following translation of the quote by Paolucci in a number of places, I found it here.

False is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience; that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils, except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes….Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.

For those who would prefer practicing their Italian, here’s the quote in Italian, as it appeared in Jefferson’s Legal Commonplace Book:

“Falsa idea di utilità è quella, che sacrifica mille vantaggi reali, per un inconveniente o immaginario, o di poca conseguenza, che toglierebbe agli uomini il fuoco perchè incendia, e l’acqua perchè annega; che non ripara ai mali, che col distruggere. Le leggi, che proibiscono di portar le armi, sono leggi di tal natura; esse non disarmano che i non inclinati, nè determinati ai delitti, mentre coloro che hanno il coraggio di poter violare le leggi più sacre della umanità è le più importanti del codice, come rispetteranno le minori, e le puramente arbitrarie? Queste peggiorano la condizione degli assaliti migliorando quella degli assalitori, non iscemano gli omicidi, ma gli accrescono, perchè è maggiore la confidenza nell’assalire i disarmati, che gli armati. Queste si chiaman leggi, non preventrici, ma paurose dei delitti, che nascono dalla tumultuosa impressione di alcuni fatti particolari, non dalla ragionata meditazione degl’inconvenienti, ed avvantaggi di un decreto universale.”

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