Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana, Marquis of (1738–1794)

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BECCARIA, CESARE BONESANA, MARQUIS OF (17381794), Italian economist and proponent of judicial reform. Cesare Beccaria was the author of the most famous Italian work of the Enlightenment, On Crimes and Punishments (1764). He was born into a noble family of the state of Milan, which was part of the Austrian Habsburg empire, and was schooled by the Jesuits in Parma. After receiving his law degree from the University of Pavia in 1758, he returned to live in Milan. Beccaria's twenties were the most important decade in his intellectual and emotional life. He was temperamentally inclined to lethargy and anxiety, but when young could also be galvanized by inspiration, and expressed his feelings in the language of Rousseau. He married his first wife in 1761, against strong resistance from his family, and wrote On Crimes and Punishments in 1763, when he was twenty-five. His friendships with Pietro Verri (17281797) and other ardent young Milanese reformers did not however, outlast the 1760s, for in their eyes he seemed to lose all of his vitality and to settle into an arid and routine private life, which nevertheless allowed him to hold his melancholy at bay.

Beccaria assumed a prestigious public lectureship in the Scuola Palatine on "cameral sciences" (political economy) in 1768. He mastered the literature of the nascent science of economics, and his teaching was impregnated with the Enlightenment ideal of building a new science of humanity, understanding the evolution of human society, and improving the lives of entire populations. In 1771 Beccaria requested and was granted membership in a government council that dealt with economic affairs. Through a succession of such appointments he rose to become a senior member of the administration of the state of Milan, with responsibilities at various times for agriculture, industry, trade, civil and criminal justice, statistics, and public order.

Beccaria himself dated his discovery of the Enlightenment to 1761, when he began to read the works of the French and Scottish philosophes and discuss them with a circle of young friends led by Pietro Verri. In all the provinces of the Austrian empire, including Milan, absolutist reforms emanating from Vienna continued to encounter entrenched resistance from noble and ecclesiastical corporations and from the juridical culture of the ancien régime. Verri, Beccaria, and their cohort wished to modernize and rationalize the economy and the legal system in line with Enlightenment secular morality, and they supported governmental reform. On Crimes and Punishments was first published in 1764, with subsequent editions following rapidly. Beccaria prepared the edition now regarded as definitive in 1766. The work became known in France through the translation of André Morellet (17271819), who freely altered the Italian text (Beccaria for some reason never protested against this), and then it spread throughout Europe. It was attacked by conservatives everywhere and was defended by adherents of the Enlightenment. Voltaire composed a commentary on it. In October 1766 Verri and Beccaria journeyed to Paris to bask in the admiration of the philosophes there, but Beccaria quickly became despondent and fled back to Milan.

On Crimes and Punishments combines elements from social contract theory with utilitarian positions. It touches on many aspects of law and justice in a rapid, impassioned style, completely abjuring legal technicalities. Criminal law ought to state clearly what is forbidden and what the penalties are and ought to be applied uniformly to all, with no room for discretionary interpretation by jurists or magistrates or gracious pardon from the sovereign. The penalties themselves should be carefully proportioned to the corresponding crimes and calibrated to deliver the minimum of punishment necessary. Beccaria sought in all cases to minimize or abolish the use of violence and the infliction of pain. He argued against the use of torture in the gathering of evidence, highlighting its absurdity, and against the death penalty, emphasizing its failure to deter. The thrust of the work was to guarantee the individual citizen against arbitrariness, delay, secrecy, and useless and excessive violence, in the codification of the law and the application of penal sanctions. Overall the book is a sustained attack on the juridical culture of the ancien régime as well as a sketch of the principles on which it ought to be reformed so as to produce "the greatest happiness shared among the greatest number."

Philosophers perhaps foremost among them Jeremy Bentham (17481832), statesmen including Thomas Jefferson (17431826), and sovereigns including Joseph II (17411790; ruled 17651790) of Austria and Catherine II of Russia (17291796; ruled 17621796), were influenced by On Crimes and Punishments. Judicial torture and the death penalty were abolished in a number of European states in a climate of public opinion that had been changed forever by Beccaria's book.

See also Crime and Punishment ; Enlightenment ; Law .


Primary Sources

Beccaria, Cesare. Edizione nazionale delle Opere di Cesare Beccaria. Milan, 1984. Luigi Firpo, founding editor. Vol. 1, Dei delitti e delle pene (1984), edited by Gianni Francioni with a detailed study of the early editions by Luigi Firpo, is the edition of reference for all aspects of the text of this work. Other volumes include Beccaria's philosophical and literary works, correspondence, and official government papers.

. On Crimes and Punishments and Other Writings. Edited by Richard Bellamy. Translated by Richard Davies with Virginia Cox and Richard Bellamy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995. With a valuable introduction by the editor placing Beccaria in the history of political thought and with further bibliography.

Secondary Sources

Venturi, Franco. "Beccaria, Cesare." In Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. Vol. 7, pp. 458469. Rome, 1965. An article-length monograph by the doyen of modern Beccaria scholars.

. Italy and the Enlightenment: Studies in a Cosmopolitan Century. Edited by Stuart Woolf. Translated by Susan Corsi. London, 1972. See chapter 6, "Cesare Beccaria and Legal Reform."

William McCuaig

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Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana, Marquis of (1738–1794)

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