Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana (1738–1794)

views updated


Cesare Bonesana Beccaria, the Italian criminologist and economist, was born in Milan of aristocratic parents. His formal education began at the Jesuit college in Parma and ended with his graduation from the University of Pavia in 1758. After graduation Beccaria came under the intellectual influence of two brothers, Pietro and Alessandro Verri, who had gathered around themselves the young Milanese intelligentsia to form a society known as the "academy of fists," committed to promoting reforms in political, economic, and administrative affairs.

Beccaria was prompted by Pietro Verri to read the then prominent philosophies of the Baron de Montesquieu, Claude-Adrian Helvétius, Denis Diderot, David Hume, and the Comte de Buffon. At the suggestion of his friends, Beccaria wrote and published his first treatise, Del disordine e de' rimedi delle monete nello Stato di Milano nell'anno 1762 (Lucca, 1762). It was also through the encouragement of the Verri brothers that Beccaria composed his most important work, Dei delitti e delle pene (translated by H. Paolucci as On Crimes and Punishments, New York, 1963). Through Alessandro Verri, who was an official of the prison in Milan, Beccaria visited that institution and saw the conditions that furnished information and moral stimulus for his writing. Pietro, who had already begun writing a history of torture, in many conversations on the errors of criminal law and administration provided Beccaria with new arguments and insights for the treatise. In the end, the work was almost a collaboration by the three men, for Beccaria until that time had been relatively uninformed about crime and punishment. Begun in March 1763 and completed in January 1764, the book was published anonymously at Livorno out of fear of reprisals because of its devastating attack on the legal and judicial system then in operation. But anonymity was soon dropped when it became clear that the Milanese authorities were receptive and when the essay drew the attention and respect of the Parisian intelligentsia.

Beccaria held a chair in political economy in the Palatine School of Milan from 1768 to 1770, and his lectures during this period were published posthumously in 1804 under the title Elementi di economia pubblica. His economic ideas on the division of labor and the determination of wages have been compared to those of Adam Smith (who wrote the Wealth of Nations seven years after publication of Beccaria's economic views). In economics Beccaria espoused a form of mercantilism based on some of the ideas of the physiocrats, expressed the belief that agriculture was the most productive enterprise, advocated commercial freedom within a nation and the abolition of guilds, and displayed a Malthusian concern with the relation of population growth to the means of subsistence. He also held a series of minor public offices through which he aided his friends in securing reforms in taxation, currency, and the corn trade.

On Crimes and Punishments was a protest against the use of torture to obtain confessions, secret accusations, the arbitrary discretionary power of judges, the inconsistency and inequality of sentencing, the influence of power and status in obtaining leniency, the lack of distinction in treatment of the accused and the convicted, and the use of capital punishment for serious and even minor offenses.

The concepts that Beccaria employedrationalism, the social contract, utility, and hedonismwere current among the intellectuals of his time. The application of these ideas to crime and punishment, and the style of writing, were his own. Building upon Rousseau's social-contract philosophy, he argued that each person willingly sacrifices to the political community only so much of his liberty as "suffices to induce others to defend it." Laws are only the necessary conditions of this contract, and punishments under the law should have no other purpose than to defend the sum of these sacrificed shares of liberty "against private usurpations by individuals." Punishments for any other reason are unnecessary and unjust.

Beccaria declared that the law should be clear in defining crimes and that judges should not interpret the law but simply ascertain whether a person has or has not violated the law. He also held that punishment should be adjusted in severity to the seriousness of the crime. The primary purpose of punishment, Beccaria argued, is to ensure the existence of society, and the seriousness of the crime, therefore, varies according to the degree to which the transgressor's act endangers that existence. Treason and other acts against the state are most harmful, followed by injuries to the security of person and property and finally, by acts which are disruptive of public harmony and peace, such as rioting or inciting to disorder.

To ensure the continuance of society, punishment should aim at deterrence, that is, at preventing offenders from doing additional harm and others from committing crimes. To be effective as a deterrent to crime, punishment should be swift and certain; it is the certainty rather than the severity of punishment that deters. Life imprisonment is sufficient to deter: The death penalty is not necessary, nor is it legitimate, for individuals did not under the social contract relinquish the right to their lives. Corporal punishment is bad, and torture as part of a criminal investigation makes the suffering of pain rather than evidence the test of truth. Crimes against property should be punished by fines or, when fines cannot be paid, by imprisonment.

Beccaria's classic conclusionthe principles of which were adopted almost in their entirety by the revolutionary National Assembly of France in 1789 as Article VIII of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen"read in part as follows: "In order for punishment not to be, in every instance, an act of violence of one or of many against a private citizen, it must be essentially public, prompt, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crimes, dictated by the laws."

Beccaria's essay became famous almost overnight. It was translated into French in 1766 by the Abbé Morellet, passed through six editions within eighteen months, one of which was embellished by a laudatory comment by Voltaire, and was thereafter translated into every important language. The Church of Rome placed the treatise on the Index in 1766, but the Austrian government, which controlled Milan, defended and honored Beccaria. Maria Theresa of Austria, Leopold II, grand duke of Tuscany, and Catherine the Great of Russia announced their intentions to be guided by Beccaria's principle in the reformation of their laws. The essay both paved the way for, and was the guiding force in, the major penal reforms that took place for two centuries afterward.

See also Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de; Diderot, Denis; Hedonism; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Hume, David; Montesquieu, Baron de; Philosophy of Law, History of; Rationalism; Smith, Adam; Social Contract; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


works by beccaria

Opere. Edited by Pasquale Villari. Florence, 1854. A more recent edition was edited by S. Romagnoli, 2 vols. (Florence, 1958), with a bibliography, Vol. 2, pp. 917918.

Scritti e lettere inediti raccolti ed illustrati da Eugenio Landry. Edited by Eugenio Landry. Milan, 1910.

works on beccaria

Cantù, C. Beccaria e il diretto penale. Florence: G. Barbèra, 1862.

Monachesi, E. "Cesare Beccaria." In Pioneers in Criminology, edited by H. Mannheim. London: Stevens, 1960. Pp. 3650.

Paolucci, Henry. "Introduction" to his translation of Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments. New York, 1963. Pp. ixxxiii.

Phillipson, Coleman. Three Criminal Law Reformers: Beccaria, Bentham, Romilly. London: Dent, 1923.

Schumpeter, J. A. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Marvin E. Wolfgang (1967)

About this article

Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana (1738–1794)

Updated About content Print Article