Cesare Beccaria

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Cesare, Marquis Beccaria
Cesare Beccaria.jpg
Cesare Beccaria portrait
Born 15 March 1738
Milan, Duchy of Milan, Habsburg Empire
Died 28 November 1794 (aged 56)
Milan, Duchy of Milan, Habsburg Empire
Occupation Jurist, philosopher, politician, and criminologist
Children Giulia
Giovanni Annibale

Giulio (from Anna Barbò)

Cesare (cheserae) Bonesana-Beccaria, Marquis of Gualdrasco and Villareggio[1] (Italian: [ˈtʃeːzare bekkaˈriːa]; 15 March 1738 – 28 November 1794) was an Italian criminologist,[2] jurist, philosopher, and politician, who is widely considered as the most talented jurist[3] and one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment. Recognized to be one of the fathers of classical criminal theory,[4] he is well remembered for his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which condemned torture and the death penalty, and was a founding work in the field of penology and the Classical School of criminology by promoting criminal justice.

Cesare Beccaria's works had a profound influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States.[5]

Birth and education[edit]

Born in Milan on 15 March 1738, Beccaria received his early education in the Jesuit college at Parma. Subsequently, he graduated in law from the University of Pavia in 1758.

In his mid-twenties, Beccaria became close friends with Pietro and Alessandro Verri, two brothers who formed an intellectual circle called "the academy of fists" which focused on reforming the criminal justice system. Through this group Beccaria became acquainted with French and British political philosophers, such as Hobbes, Diderot, Helvetius, Montesquieu, and Hume. At the encouragement of Pietro, Beccaria wrote On Crimes and Punishments (1764). Some background information was provided by Pietro, who was in the process of authoring a text on the history of torture, and Alessandro was an official at a Milan prison had first hand experience of the prison's appalling conditions. The brief work relentlessly protests against torture to obtain confessions, secret accusations, the arbitrary discretionary power of judges, the inconsistency and inequality of sentencing, using personal connections to get a lighter sentence, and the use of capital punishment for serious and even minor offenses. Almost immediately, the work was translated into French and English and went through several editions.

Legal scholars of the time hailed it, and several European emperors vowed to follow it. With great hesitation, Beccaria acted on an invitation to Paris to meet the great thinkers of the day. A chronically shy person, Beccaria made a poor impression at Paris and returned to Milan after three weeks. Beccaria continued to gain official recognition and held several nominal political positions in Italy. Separated from the invaluable input from his friends, though, he failed to produce another text of equal importance. Outside Italy, an unfounded myth grew that Beccaria's literary silence owed to Austrian restrictions on free expression in Italy.

At first he showed a great aptitude for mathematics, but studying Montesquieu (1689-1755) redirected his attention towards economics. In 1762 his first publication, a tract on the disorder of the currency in the Milanese states, included a proposal for its remedy.[6]

During this time, Beccaria, with the brothers Pietro and Alessandro Verri and a number of other young men from the Milan aristocracy, formed a literary society named "L'Accademia dei pugni" (the Academy of Fists), a playful name which made fun of the stuffy academies that proliferated in Italy and also hinted that relaxed conversations which took place in there sometimes ended in affrays.

He was influenced by Helvétius.[7]

On Crimes and Punishments[edit]

Frontpage of the original Italian edition Dei delitti e delle pene

The Verri brothers and Beccaria started an important cultural reformist movement centered around their journal Il Caffè ("The Coffeehouse"), which ran from the summer of 1764 for about two years, and was inspired by Addison and Steele's literary magazine, The Spectator and other such journals.[8] Il Caffè represented an entirely new cultural moment in northern Italy. With their Enlightenment rhetoric and their balance between topics of socio-political and literary interest, the anonymous contributors held the interest of the educated classes in Italy, introducing recent thought such as that of Voltaire and Diderot.

Editions of Beccaria's text follow two distinct arrangements of the material: that by Beccaria himself, and that by French translator Andre Morellet (1765) who imposed a more systematic order to Beccaria's original text. Beccaria opens his work describing the great need for reform in the criminal justice system, and he observes how few studies there are on the subject of such reform. Throughout his work, Beccaria develops his position by appealing to two key philosophical theories: social contract and utility. Concerning the social contract, Beccaria argues that punishment is justified only to defend the social contract and to ensure that everyone will be motivated to abide by it. Concerning utility (perhaps influenced by Helvetius), Beccaria argues that the method of punishment selected should be that which serves the greatest public good.

Contemporary political philosophers distinguish between two principle theories of justifying punishment. First, the retributive approach maintains that punishment should be equal to the harm done, either literally an eye for an eye, or more figuratively which allows for alternative forms of compensation. The retributive approach tends to be retaliatory and vengeance-oriented. The second approach is utilitarian which maintains that punishment should increase the total amount of happiness in the world. This often involves punishment as a means of reforming the criminal, incapacitating him from repeating his crime, and deterring others. Beccaria clearly takes a utilitarian stance. For Beccaria, the purpose of punishment is to create a better society, not revenge. Punishment serves to deter others from committing crimes, and to prevent the criminal from repeating his crime.

Beccaria argues that Punishment should be swift since this has the greatest deterrence value. He defends his view about the swiftness of punishment by appealing to the theory of the association of ideas (developed most notably by David Hume and David Hartley). According to associationists, if we know the rules by which the mind connects together two different ideas (such as the ideas of crime and punishment), then we can strengthen their association.

For Beccaria when a punishment quickly follows a crime, then the two ideas of "crime" and "punishment" will be more quickly associated in a person's mind. Also, the link between a crime and a punishment is stronger if the punishment is somehow related to the crime. Given the fact that the swiftness of punishment has the greatest impact on deterring others, Beccaria argues that there is no justification for severe punishments. In time we will naturally grow accustomed to increases in severity of punishment, and, thus, the initial increase in severity will lose its effect. There are limits both to how much torment we can endure, and also how much we can inflict.

Beccaria touches on an array of criminal justice practices, recommending reform. For example, he argues that dueling can be eliminated if laws protected a person from insults to his honor. Laws against suicide are ineffective, and thus should be eliminated, leaving punishment of suicide to God. Bounty hunting should not be permitted since it incites people to be immoral and shows a weakness in the government. He argues that laws should be clear in defining crimes so that judges do not interpret the law, but only decide whether a law has been broken.

Punishments should be in degree to the severity of the crime. Treason is the worst crime since it harms the social contract. This is followed by violence against a person or his property, and, finally, by public disruption. Crimes against property should be punished by fines. The best ways to prevent crimes are to enact clear and simple laws, reward virtue, and improve education.

As Beccaria’s ideas were critical of the legal system in place at the time, and were therefore likely to stir controversy, he chose to publish the essay anonymously -- for fear of government backlash.

In actuality, the treatise was extremely well-received. Catherine the Great publicly endorsed it, while thousands of miles away in the United States, founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams quoted it. Once it was clear that the government approved of his essay, Beccaria republished it, this time crediting himself as the author.

Three tenets served as the basis of Beccaria’s theories on criminal justice: free will, rational manner, and manipulability. According to Beccaria -- and most classical theorists -- free will enables people to make choices. Beccaria believed that people have a rational manner and apply it toward making choices that will help them achieve their own personal gratification.

In Beccaria’s interpretation, law exists to preserve the social contract and benefit society as a whole. But, because people act out of self-interest and their interest sometimes conflicts with societal laws, they commit crimes. The principle of manipulability refers to the predictable ways in which people act out of rational self-interest and might therefore be dissuaded from committing crimes if the punishment outweighs the benefits of the crime, rendering the crime an illogical choice.

In 1764 Beccaria published a brief but justly celebrated treatise On Crimes and Punishments, which marked the high point of the Milan Enlightenment. In it, Beccaria put forth some of the first modern arguments against the death penalty. His treatise was also the first full work of penology, advocating reform of the criminal law system. The book was the first full-scale work to tackle criminal reform and to suggest that criminal justice should conform to rational principles. It is a less theoretical work than the writings of Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf and other comparable thinkers, and as much a work of advocacy as of theory. In this essay, Beccaria reflected the convictions of the Il Caffè group, who sought to cause reform through Enlightenment discourse.

Policies and later life[edit]

The principles to which Beccaria appealed were Reason, an understanding of the state as a form of contract, and, above all, the principle of utility, or of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Beccaria had elaborated this original principle in conjunction with Pietro Verri, and greatly influenced Jeremy Bentham to develop it into the full-scale doctrine of Utilitarianism.

He openly condemned the death penalty on two grounds:

  1. first, because the state does not possess the right to take lives; and
  2. secondly, because capital punishment is neither a useful nor a necessary form of punishment.
Statue of Beccaria in Pinacoteca Brera, Milan

Beccaria developed in his treatise a number of innovative and influential principles:

  • punishment had a preventive (deterrent), not a retributive, function;
  • punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed;
  • the probability of punishment, not its severity, would achieve the preventive effect;
  • procedures of criminal convictions should be public; and finally,
  • in order to be effective, punishment should be prompt.

He also argued against gun control laws.[9] He was among the first to advocate the beneficial influence of education in lessening crime.[10]

With the Verri brothers, Beccaria traveled to Paris, where he was given a very warm reception by the philosophes. He later retreated, returning to his young wife Teresa and never venturing abroad again. The break with the Verri brothers proved lasting; they were never able to understand why Beccaria had left his position at the peak of success.

Many reforms in the penal codes of the principal European nations can be traced to Beccaria's treatise, although few contemporaries were convinced by Beccaria's argument against the death penalty. When the Grand Duchy of Tuscany abolished the death penalty, as the first nation in the world to do so, it followed Beccaria's argument about the lack of utility of capital punishment, not about the state's lacking the right to execute citizens.

In November 1768, Beccaria was appointed to the chair of law and economy founded expressly for him at the Palatine college of Milan. His lectures on political economy, which are based on strict utilitarian principles, are in marked accordance with the theories of the English school of economists. They are published in the collection of Italian writers on political economy (Scrittori Classici Italiani di Economia politica, vols. xi. and xii.).[6] Beccaria never succeeded in producing a work to match Dei Delitti e Delle Pene, although he made various incomplete attempts in the course of his life. A short treatise on literary style was all he saw to press.

In 1771, Beccaria was made a member of the supreme economic council, and in 1791 he was appointed to the board for the reform of the judicial code, where he made a valuable contribution. He died in Milan.[6]

Following his death, talk of Beccaria spread to France and England. People speculated as to whether Beccaria’s lack of recent writing on criminal justice was evidence that he had been silenced by the British government. In fact, Beccaria, prone to periodic bouts of depression and misanthropy, had grown silent on his own. A forerunner in criminology, his influence during his lifetime extended to shaping the rights listed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. "On Crimes and Punishments" served as a guide to the founding fathers.

Beccaria’s theories, as expressed in his treatise "On Crimes and Punishments," have continued to play a great role in recent times. Current policies impacted by his theories include, but are not limited to, truth in sentencing, swift punishment and the abolishment of the death penalty in some U.S. states. While many of Beccaria’s theories are popular, some are still a source of heated controversy, even more than two centuries after the famed criminologist’s death.

His grandson was Alessandro Manzoni, the noted Italian novelist and poet who wrote, among other things, The Betrothed, one of the first Italian historical novels, and "Il 5 Maggio", a poem on Napoleon's death.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maria G. Vitali in: Cesare Beccaria, 1738-1794. Progresso e discorsi di economia politica (Paris, L'Harmattan, 2005, p 9; Philippe Audegean, Introduzione, in Cesare Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene, Lione, ENS Editions, 2009, p. 9); Renzo Zorzi, Cesare Beccaria. Dramma della Giustizia, Milano, Mondadori, 1995, p. 53
  2. ^ Fridell, Ron (2004). Capital punishment. New York: Benchmark Books. p. 88. ISBN 0761415874. 
  3. ^ Edward N. Peters (2013). Torture. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 304. ISBN 978-0812215991. 
  4. ^ Hostettler, John (2011). Cesare Beccaria: The Genius of 'On Crimes and Punishments'. Hampshire: Waterside Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-1904380634. 
  5. ^ John D. Bessler, The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press)
  6. ^ a b c  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Beccaria-Bonesana, Cesare". Encyclopædia Britannica 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  7. ^ Craig Hemmens and Stephen G. Tibbetts, Criminological Theory: A Text/Reader, SAGE, 2009, p. 86.
  8. ^ See Il Caffè o sia brevi e varj discorsi gia distributi in fogli periodici, seconda edizione, In Venezia: Pietro Pizzolato, MDCCLVI. via Google Books
  9. ^ Beccaria, Cesare. "Of Crimes and Punishments."
  10. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Beccaria, Cesare Bonesano". New International Encyclopedia. 1905. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Farrer, James Anson (1880). Crimes and Punishments. London: Chatto & Windus, pp. 1–107.
  • Groenewegen, Peter D. (2002). Eighteenth-Century Economics: Turgot, Beccaria and Smith and their Contemporaries. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-27940-2. 

External links[edit]