Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di

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Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di (1738-94): Italian Jurist.

The Milanese aristocrat Cesare Beccaria authored a highly influential 1764 tract condemning European penal codes, practices, and institutions and advocating liberal reform.

Educated by Jesuits, Beccaria rebelled against that training after reading Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de’s Persian Letters, to which he attributed his “conversion to philosophy.” He received his degree from the University of Pavia and risked disinheritance by entering into a marriage that displeased his father. Along with his friends, the Verri brothers(Verri, Alessandro and Pietro), Beccaria belonged to a circle of humanists who published the newspaper Il Caffe, inspired by Addison, Joseph’s Spectator. Beccaria’s An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, which was anonymously published for fear of reprisals, was itself something of a collective endeavor. Translated into several languages, it soon became an international bestseller. Though placed on the Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the volume was celebrated by luminaries like Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, who hailed it as “the code of humanity,” and by heads of state including Catherine II, the Great, Gustavus Adolphus, Maria Theresa, and Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, who pledged to abide by its directives. When Beccaria’s authorship was revealed in 1766, he was charged with sacrilegious rationalism and political subversion, and the Austrian government sent a representative to defend him. Later that year, French philosophes invited Beccaria to Paris, but anxiety and self-doubt led him to return home after only a few weeks. Shaken, he spent the rest of his life unproductively, in sinecure positions arranged by Austria.

In developing his argument, Beccaria adopted the method of Descartes and Hobbes, relying upon introspection and deduction from “self-evident” principles. The purpose of punishment, he wrote, was deterrence and correction rather than revenge. To achieve these ends, the penal system need not be harsh or unforgiving. Indeed, such policies defeat themselves, since the example they set fosters vicious behavior. Like Bentham, Jeremy on whom he had a profound influence, Beccaria thought that punishments must be calibrated to maximize utility: the greatest good for the greatest number. The most serious offenses, deserving the most onerous punishments, are those that most injure the community. Ideally, acts causing little or no social damage would be decriminalized, or punished mildly. While agreeing with Montesquieu that punishments must be more severe among “savages,” Beccaria contended that torture and capital punishment were inherently barbaric and had no possible justification in the modern world. Believing that imperious noblemen and bureaucrats were implacable opponents of judicial reform, Beccaria urged sovereigns to curb their power. Rulers should establish laws that are simple, clear, and uniform, along with punishments that are prompt, certain, and proportional to the crime, and rights to self-defense and against self-incrimination. Above all, they should strive to secure obedience by educating rather than punishing the populace.

Further Reading:

Franco Venturi, Italy and the Enlightenment, trans. Susan Corsi, 1972.

Sandra Hinchman

St. Laurence University