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Beccaria redirects here. This article is about the philosopher and politician. For the physicist please see Giovanni Battista Beccaria.

Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria
Born March 12, 1738
Died November 28, 1794
Occupation philosopher and politician
Spouse(s) Teresa di Blasco
Children Giulia

Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria-Bonesana (March 12, 1738 – November 28, 1794) was an Italian philosopher and politician best known 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.


Birth and education

He was born in Milan and educated in the Jesuit college at Parma. At first, he showed a great aptitude for mathematics, but the study of Montesquieu redirected his attention towards economics. His first publication, in 1762, was a tract on the disorder of the currency in the Milanese states, with a proposal for its remedy. During this time Beccaria, with the brothers Alessandro and Pietro Verri and a number of other young men from the Milan aristocracy formed a literary society, which was named "L'Accademia dei pugni" (the Academy of Fists), a playful name that made fun of the stuffy academies that proliferated in Italy.



On Crimes and Punishment

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The Verri brothers and Beccaria started an important cultural reformist movement centered around their journal Il Pavone, 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. Il Pavone 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.

Frontpage of the original Italian edition Dei delitti e delle pene.

In 1764 Beccaria published a brief but justly celebrated treatise Dei delitti e delle pene ("On Crimes and Punishments"), which marked the high point of the Milan Enlightenment. In it, Beccaria put forth the first arguments ever made 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 Pavone group, who sought to cause reform through Enlightenment discourse. The book's serious message is put across in a clear and animated style, based in particular upon a deep sense of humanity and of urgency at unjust suffering. This humane sentiment is what makes Beccaria appeal for rationality in the laws. Beccaria also argued against torture, believing it was cruel and unnecessary to treat another human that way.

He believed that it was incorrect to make suicide illegal, for God would punish that person in the end:

"Suicide is a crime which seems not to admit of punishment, properly speaking; for it cannot be inflicted but on the innocent, or upon an insensible dead body. In the first case, it is unjust and tyrannical, for political liberty supposes all punishments entirely personal; in the second, it has the same effect, by way of example, as the scourging a statue. Mankind love life too well; the objects that surround them, the seducing phantom of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest error of mortals, which makes men swallow such large draughts of evil, mingled with a very few drops of good, allure them too strongly, to apprehend that this crime will ever be common from its unavoidable impunity. The laws are obeyed through fear of punishment, but death destroys all sensibility. What motive then can restrain the desperate hand of suicide?...But, to return: -- If it be demonstrated that the laws which imprison men in their own country are vain and unjust, it will be equally true of those which punish suicide; for that can only be punished after death, which is in the power of God alone; but it is no crime with regard to man, because the punishment falls on an innocent family. If it be objected, that the consideration of such a punishment may prevent the crime, I answer, that he who can calmly renounce the pleasure of existence, who is so weary of life as to brave the idea of eternal misery, will never be influenced by the more distant and less powerful considerations of family and children."
Of Crimes and Punishments

Within eighteen months, the book passed through six editions. It was translated into French by Olympe de Gouges in 1766 and published with an anonymous commentary by Voltaire.
An English translation appeared in 1767, and it was translated into several other languages.

The book was read by all the luminaries of the day, including, in the United States, by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Indeed, Thomas Jefferson in his "Commonplace Book," copied a passage from Beccaria related to the issue of gun control. The quote reads, "Laws that forbid the carrying of arms . . . disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes . . . Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man."[1]

Policies and later life

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.

Apart from condemning the death penalty (on two grounds: first, because the state does not possess the right to take lives; and secondly, because capital punishment is neither a useful nor a necessary form of punishment), 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 certainty 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.[2]

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 right to execute citizens.

In November 1768, Beccaria was appointed to the chair 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.). 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 Florence.

His daughter Giulia was the mother of Alessandro Manzoni, the noted Italian novelist and poet who wrote among other things: I Promessi Sposi, one of the first Italian historical novels and "Il 5 Maggio", a poem on Napoleon's death.


  1. ^ "Dei Delitti e delle Pene"ISBN 88-17-12310-2, Chapter 40.
  2. ^ Beccaria, Cesare. "Of Crimes and Punishments."

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