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There have been few more reluctant heroes in the history of ideas than Cesare Bonesana, marquis of Beccaria (1738–1794). He was the creator of modern penal theory, but his classic An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (1764) was rather extracted from him than freely written by him. Bored and idle after leaving school, yet fired by Enlightenment ideals, the young Milanese joined a congenial radical discussion group, the Punch-hards. They saw themselves as north Italian Encyclopedists, so many Voltaires and Diderots joined to attack the abuses of the Austrian regime. Each member was expected to study, master, and report on a special subject. Beccaria chose criminal law but dawdled over it, until at last, goaded by his friends, he amazed them all and produced a masterpiece.

The book was immediately celebrated all over western Europe as the bible of legal reform. Within a few months d’Alembert and Voltaire had become enthusiastic converts. The Abbé Morellet’s French translation went through seven printings in six months. Voltaire added a chapter-by-chapter commentary, and the book was soon hailed from Lisbon to St. Petersburg. The Berne Society awarded Beccaria its gold medal of honor; Catherine the Great invited him to Russia to codify criminal law; American and English editions followed; and Sir William Blackstone and Jeremy Bentham were eager celebrants.

Here, then, was irony: This small treatise on crime and punishment was written casually and reluctantly by an unknown, indolent aristocrat of 26, a stranger to legal studies who had no special knowledge of penal law and no experience whatever of criminal administration. Yet he succeeded where dozens of learned and experienced scholars and jurists had failed. Not only did all enlightened reformers and monarchs read and praise his book, they heeded it; and by the turn of the century every major nation of Europe had slowly or more quickly followed his road to criminal law reform. Why was he so successful?

His was first of all a master stroke of timing. The law is always conservative and even in quiet times lags behind other social changes, but in that critical progressive Age of Enlightenment the gulf between humanitarian ideals and barbarous practice became ever more notorious and at last intolerable. Throughout the Continent the heritage of the Inquisition lay heavily. Secret accusations, lettres de cachet, “confessions” extracted by brutal tortures, mere charges considered prima-facie evidence of guilt, convictions without appeal, arbitrary pardons, and tyrannical punishments were all commonplace. Capital offenses multiplied with frivolous abandon; there were over two hundred in England, including stealing turnips and damaging fishponds. The penalties were atrocious. Men were done to death by the gibbet, the axe, the lash, burning, breaking on the wheel. They were consigned to galleys, branded, or pilloried or had their limbs amputated. It was a nightmare of horrors that demanded reform, and by the 1760s many men had cried out against it.

It was Beccaria’s genius, however, to gather up all those poignant cries and shape them into a simple, rational, elegant, and passionately humane theory, moving and persuasive to all men of good will. He thought his principles as clear and demonstrable as Euclidean geometry. His two basic axioms were those of all good utilitarians: pleasures and pains are the springs of human action; the end of good legislation must be the greatest happiness of the greatest number. By ascending to these general principles, a “political arithmetic” could now, for the first time, be created, “a calculation of probabilities to mathematical exactness” (Beccaria [1764] 1953, p. 29). It was clear, then, that both crimes and punishments are pains and therefore evil; that a scale of crimes can be formed according to the extent of the social evil they produce, from the highest crime of violent revolution down to the smallest private civil injustice; and that the test is always social injury and not private intention. From the new science of political arithmetic it also followed that there ought to be a fixed ratio between crimes and punishments, that its measure is prevention, not vengeance, and its axiom is minimum pain. It is enough that for any given crime the pain of punishment minimally exceed the pleasure gained from its commission. More is superfluous; all excess is tyrannical and barbarous. Cruel, secret, arbitrary punishments are not preventive; clearly written, known, certain, and immediate ones are.

Axioms in hand, Beccaria applied them one by one to the infamies of eighteenth-century criminal law—secret accusations, torture, banishments, confiscation, proceedings in bankruptcy, capital punishment. All miserably failed the test of his lucid humane aphorisms, which he summed up in a concluding general theorem: “That a punishment may not be an act of violence … against a private member of society, it should be public, immediate, and necessary, the least possible in the case given, proportioned to the crime, and determined by the laws” ([1764] 1953, p. 160). And the leading minds and monarchs of Europe agreed with him.

But Beccaria was more than the Italian Jeremy Bentham; he was also the Italian Adam Smith. Impressed with his fame, in 1768 the Austrian government created a chair of economics for him at Milan. Although he held it only two years, after which he became a high and valued official in the Milanese administration, he left behind a set of lectures remarkable for their analytic and mathematical power and their sophisticated foreshadowing of some modern economic theory. He began his analysis as Adam Smith did, with a normative definition of economics, and then moved on to the evolution of technology, division of labor, and population. His principle of economic action was of course utilitarian, the standard doctrine of egoistic hedonism. The second and third parts dealt with agriculture and manufactures, and the fourth with commerce and theory of value and price: barter, money, competition, interest, foreign exchange, banks, and credit. Here he gave prescient analyses of the indeterminateness of isolated barter and the transition to a determinate competitive market and thence to indirect exchange.

Rough, unfinished, not meant to be published, these lectures did not appear until 1804, ten years after Beccaria’s death. Although he was a brilliant analyst, it was inevitable that he should forsake theory for practice and become a working administrator. The principle of utility demanded it, but we are the poorer for it.

Mary Peter Mack

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Beccaria‘s ideas, seeCriminology.]


Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di (1764) 1953 An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. Stanford, Calif.: Academic Reprints. → First published in Italian under the title Dei delitti e delle pene. A new American edition was published in 1963 by Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis).

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

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1954 History of Economic Analysis. Edited by E. B. Schumpeter. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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