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Cesare Beccaria

Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria
File:Cesare Beccaria in Dei delitti crop.jpg
Cesare Beccaria portrait from the opening page of Dei delitti e delle pene
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
Spouse(s) Anna Barbò
Children Giulia
Giovanni Annibale

Giulio (from Anna Barbò)

Cesare Bonesana-Beccaria, Marquis of Gualdrasco and Villareggio[1] (Italian: [ˈtʃɛːzare bekkaˈriːa]; 15 March 1738 – 28 November 1794) was an Italian criminologist,[2] jurist, philosopher, politician and one of the most influential of the Enlightenment thinkers. He is 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 and the Classical School of criminology. He promoted criminal justice.

Cesare Beccaria's book, On Crimes and Punishments, had a profound influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and others.[3]

Birth and education

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.

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.[4]

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.[citation needed]

He was influenced by Helvétius.[5]

On Crimes and Punishments

File:Dei deleti e delle pene 1764.jpg
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.[6] 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.

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

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.
File:Cesare Beccaria statue Pinacoteca Brera.jpg
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.[7] He was among the first to advocate the beneficial influence of education in lessening crime.[8]

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.).[4] 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.[4]

His daughter Giulia was the mother of 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


  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. ^ John D. Bessler, The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press)
  4. ^ a b c 12px Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Beccaria-Bonesana, Cesare". Encyclopædia Britannica 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  5. ^ Craig Hemmens and Stephen G. Tibbetts, Criminological Theory: A Text/Reader, SAGE, 2009, p. 86.
  6. ^ See Il Caffè o sia brevi e varj discorsi gia distributi in fogli periodici, seconda edizione, In Venezia: Pietro Pizzolato, MDCCLVI. via Google Books
  7. ^ Beccaria, Cesare. "Of Crimes and Punishments."
  8. ^ 12px "Beccaria, Cesare Bonesano". New International Encyclopedia. 1905. 

Further reading

  • 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

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