Experience has sug­ges­ted that in the coun­tries where penal­ties are lenient the mind of the citi­zen is as impres­sed by them as it is elsew­here by heavy ones.

If a state beco­mes aware of some pro­blem, a vio­lent govern­ment tries to cor­rect it sud­denly, and rather than thin­king of apply the old laws they esta­blish a cruel penalty to put an imme­diate end to the pro­blem. But they sap the govern­ment’s resource ; the ima­gi­na­tion adapts to this heavy penalty as it had to the les­ser one ; and since it dimi­ni­shes the fear of the first one, soon the second has to be esta­bli­shed in all cases. Highway rob­be­ries were com­mon in some sta­tes : to put a stop to them, they came up with brea­king on the wheel, which ended them for a while. Since then rob­bery conti­nues as before on the high­ways.

In our times, deser­tion was very fre­quent ; the death penalty was ins­ti­tu­ted against deser­ters, and deser­tion was not dimi­ni­shed. The rea­son for this is quite natu­ral : a sol­dier accus­to­med to ris­king his life every day scorns, or flat­ters him­self he scorns, dan­ger. He is every day accus­to­med to fea­ring shame : the thing to do was to leave in place a penalty that made him bear a life­long stain ; the inten­tion was to increase the punish­ment, and in rea­lity it was ligh­te­ned.

Men must not be led by extreme paths ; eco­no­mi­cal use must be made of the means nature gives us for conduc­ting them. If we but exa­mine the cause of all the laxity, we will see that it comes from the impu­nity of cri­mes, and not from the mode­ra­te­ness of penal­ties.

Let us fol­low nature, which has given men shame as their scourge ; and let the grea­ter part of the penalty be the infamy of suf­fe­ring it.

Now if there are coun­tries where shame does not fol­low on punish­ment, the rea­son is the tyranny that has inflic­ted the same penal­ties on scoun­drels and on ups­tan­ding per­sons.

And if you see others where men are res­trai­ned only by cruel punish­ments, be sure once more that it is owing in large part to the vio­lence of the govern­ment, which has applied those punish­ments for petty offen­ses.

Often a legis­la­tor who wants to cor­rect a pro­blem thinks only of this cor­rec­tion ; his eyes are open to the objec­tive, and clo­sed to the draw­backs. Once the pro­blem is cor­rec­ted, all you can see is the seve­rity of the legis­la­tor ; but there remains a vice in the state which this seve­rity has pro­du­ced : the minds are cor­rup­ted ; they have become accus­to­med to des­po­tism.

After Lysander1 had won the vic­tory over the Athenians, the pri­so­ners were jud­ged ; the Athenians were accu­sed of having thrown over­board all the cap­ti­ves of two gal­leys, and of having resol­ved in open assem­bly to cut the hand off any pri­so­ners they took. They were all slaugh­te­red except Adymante, who had oppo­sed that decree. Lysander reproa­ched Philoclese, before having him put to death, for having depra­ved the minds and given les­sons in cruelty to all of Greece.

“The Argives having put to death fif­teen hun­dred of their own citi­zens,” says Plutarch, the Athenians sent for sacri­fi­ces of expia­tion, that it might please the gods to turn away such a cruel thought from the hearts of Athenians.”2

There are two kinds of cor­rup­tion : one, when the peo­ple do not observe the laws ; the other, when they are cor­rup­ted by the laws : an incu­ra­ble disease, because it lies in the remedy itself.

Xenophon, Hellenica, book II.

Moralia, “Precepts of statecraft.”