Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

CRIMES OR OFFENCES.

Of Time and Place.

A Roman in Egypt very unfortunately killed a consecrated cat, and the infuriated people punished this sacrilege by tearing him to pieces. If this Roman had been carried before the tribunal, and the judges had possessed common sense, he would have been condemned to ask pardon of the Egyptians and the cats, and to pay a heavy fine, either in money or mice. They would have told him that he ought to respect the follies of the people, since he was not strong enough to correct them.

The venerable chief justice should have spoken to him in this manner: “Every country has its legal impertinences, and its offences of time and place. If in your Rome, which has become the sovereign of Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor, you were to kill a sacred fowl, at the precise time that you give it grain in order to ascertain the just will of the gods, you would be severely punished. We believe that you have only killed our cat accidentally. The court admonishes you. Go in peace, and be more circumspect in future.”

It seems a very indifferent thing to have a statue in our hall; but if, when Octavius, surnamed Augustus, was absolute master, a Roman had placed in his house the statue of Brutus, he would have been punished as seditious. If a citizen, under a reigning emperor, had the statue of the competitor to the empire, it is said that it was accounted a crime of high treason.

An Englishman, having nothing to do, went to Rome, where he met Prince Charles Edward at the house of a cardinal. Pleased at the incident, on his return he drank in a tavern to the health of Prince Charles Edward, and was immediately accused of high treason. But whom did he highly betray in wishing the prince well? If he had conspired to place him on the throne, then he would have been guilty towards the nation; but I do not see that the most rigid justice of parliament could require more from him than to drink four cups to the health of the house of Hanover, supposing he had drunk two to the house of Stuart.

Of Crimes of Time and Place, which Ought to Be Concealed.

It is well known how much our Lady of Loretto ought to be respected in the March of Ancona. Three young people happened to be joking on the house of our lady, which has travelled through the air to Dalmatia; which has two or three times changed its situation, and has only found itself comfortable at Loretto. Our three scatterbrains sang a song at supper, formerly made by a Huguenot, in ridicule of the translation of the santa casa of Jerusalem to the end of the Adriatic Gulf. A fanatic, having heard by chance what passed at their supper, made strict inquiries, sought witnesses, and engaged a magistrate to issue a summons. This proceeding alarmed all consciences. Every one trembled in speaking of it. Chambermaids, vergers, innkeepers, lackeys, servants, all heard what was never said, and saw what was never done: there was an uproar, a horrible scandal throughout the whole March of Ancona. It was said, half a league from Loretto, that these youths had killed our lady; and a league farther, that they had thrown the santa casa into the sea. In short, they were condemned. The sentence was, that their hands should be cut off, and their tongues be torn out; after which they were to be put to the torture, to learn — at least by signs — how many couplets there were in the song. Finally, they were to be burnt to death by a slow fire.

An advocate of Milan, who happened to be at Loretto at this time, asked the principal judge to what he would have condemned these boys if they had violated their mother, and afterwards killed and eaten her? “Oh!” replied the judge, “there is a great deal of difference; to assassinate and devour their father and mother is only a crime against men.” “Have you an express law,” said the Milanese, “which obliges you to put young people scarcely out of their nurseries to such a horrible death, for having indiscreetly made game of the santa casa, which is contemptuously laughed at all over the world, except in the March of Ancona?” “No,” said the judge, “the wisdom of our jurisprudence leaves all to our discretion.” “Very well, you ought to have discretion enough to remember that one of these children is the grandson of a general who has shed his blood for his country, and the nephew of an amiable and respectable abbess; the youth and his companions are giddy boys, who deserve paternal correction. You tear citizens from the state, who might one day serve it; you imbrue yourself in innocent blood, and are more cruel than cannibals. You will render yourselves execrable to posterity. What motive has been powerful enough, thus to extinguish reason, justice, and humanity in your minds, and to change you into ferocious beasts?” The unhappy judge at last replied: “We have been quarrelling with the clergy of Ancona; they accuse us of being too zealous for the liberties of the Lombard Church, and consequently of having no religion.” “I understand, then,” said the Milanese, “that you have made yourselves assassins to appear Christians.” At these words the judge fell to the ground, as if struck by a thunderbolt; and his brother judges having been since deprived of office, they cry out that injustice is done them. They forget what they have done, and perceive not that the hand of God is upon them.

For seven persons legally to amuse themselves by making an eighth perish on a public scaffold by blows from iron bars; take a secret and malignant pleasure in witnessing his torments; speak of it afterwards at table with their wives and neighbors; for the executioners to perform this office gaily, and joyously anticipate their reward; for the public to run to this spectacle as to a fair — all this requires that a crime merit this horrid punishment in the opinion of all well-governed nations, and, as we here treat of universal humanity, that it is necessary to the well-being of society. Above all, the actual perpetration should be demonstrated beyond contradiction. If against a hundred thousand probabilities that the accused be guilty there is a single one that he is innocent, that alone should balance all the rest.

Query: Are Two Witnesses Enough to Condemn a Man to be Hanged?

It has been for a long time imagined, and the proverb assures us, that two witnesses are enough to hang a man, with a safe conscience. Another ambiguity! The world, then, is to be governed by equivoques. It is said in St. Matthew that two or three witnesses will suffice to reconcile two divided friends; and after this text has criminal jurisprudence been regulated, so far as to decree that by divine law a citizen may be condemned to die on the uniform deposition of two witnesses who may be villains? It has been already said that a crowd of according witnesses cannot prove an improbable thing when denied by the accused. What, then, must be done in such a case? Put off the judgment for a hundred years, like the Athenians!

We shall here relate a striking example of what passed under our eyes at Lyons. A woman suddenly missed her daughter; she ran everywhere in search of her in vain, and at length suspected a neighbor of having secreted the girl, and of having caused her violation. Some weeks after some fishermen found a female drowned, and in a state of putrefaction, in the Rhone at Condmeux. The woman of whom we have spoken immediately believed that it was her daughter. She was persuaded by the enemies of her neighbor that the latter had caused the deceased to be dishonored, strangled, and thrown into the Rhone. She made this accusation publicly, and the populace repeated it; persons were found who knew the minutest circumstances of the crime. The rumor ran through all the town, and all mouths cried out for vengeance. There is nothing more common than this in a populace without judgment; but here follows the most prodigious part of the affair. This neighbor’s own son, a child of five years and a half old, accused his mother of having caused the unhappy girl who was found in the Rhone to be violated before his eyes, and to be held by five men, while the sixth committed the crime. He had heard the words which pronounced her violated; he painted her attitudes; he saw his mother and these villains strangle this unfortunate girl after the consummation of the act. He also saw his mother and the assassins throw her into a well, draw her out of it, wrap her up in a cloth, carry her about in triumph, dance round the corpse, and, at last, throw her into the Rhone. The judges were obliged to put all the pretended accomplices deposed against in chains. The child is again heard, and still maintains, with the simplicity of his age, all that he had said of them and of his mother. How could it be imagined that this child had not spoken the pure truth? The crime was not probable, but it was still less so that a child of the age of five years and a half should thus calumniate his mother, and repeat with exactness all the circumstances of an abominable and unheard-of crime; if he had not been the eye-witness of it, and been overcome with the force of the truth, such things would not have been wrung from him.

Every one expected to feast his eyes on the torment of the accused; but what was the end of this strange criminal process? There was not a word of truth in the accusation. There was no girl violated, no young men assembled at the house of the accused, no murder, not the least transaction of the sort, nor the least noise. The child had been suborned; and by whom? Strange, but true, by two other children, who were the sons of the accused. He had been on the point of burning his mother to get some sweetmeats.

The heads of the accusation were clearly incompatible. The sage and enlightened court of judicature, after having yielded to the public fury so far as to seek every possible testimony for and against the accused, fully and unanimously acquitted them. Formerly, perhaps, this innocent prisoner would have been broken on the wheel, or judicially burned, for the pleasure of supplying an execution — the tragedy of the mob.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25