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Beccaria – “On Crimes And Punishments”

November 4, 2018 By Margit

Cesare Beccaria is seen by many people as the “father of criminology.” Here is a brief summary of his ideas and famous essay “On Crimes and Punishments,” both in video and text format.

Table of Contents

Discussions about Crime and Punishment

Cesare Beccaria is seen by many people as the “father of criminology” for his ideas about crime, punishment, and criminal justice procedures. He was an Italian born as an aristocrat in the year 1738 in Milan. At that time European thought about crime and punishment was still very much dominated by the old idea that crime was sin and that it was caused by the devil and by demons. And in part to punish the devil and the demons that were causing crime, very harsh punishments were used. At the time when Beccaria came along, the era of Enlightenment was in full swing, and scientists were starting to challenge the old views, but the people who had political power were not ready to leave those old ideas behind yet.

Beccaria didn’t start out as an intellectual. In fact, he wasn’t considered to be above average or interested really when it came to science or philosophy. But after he completed his law studies at the University of Pavia, he started to surround himself with a group of young men who were interested in all kinds of philosophical issues and social problems. And the intellectual discussions that Beccaria was able to have with these people led him to question many of the practices that were common in his time, including the way in which offenders were being punished for their crimes.

Publication of Beccaria’s “On Crimes and Punishments”

Beccaria’s famous work, “On Crimes and Punishments,” was published in 1764, when he was 26 years old. His essay called out the barbaric and arbitrary ways in which the criminal justice system operated. Sentences were very harsh, torture was common, there was a lot of corruption, there were secret accusations and secret trials, and there was a lot of arbitrariness in the way in which sentences were imposed. There was no such thing as equality before the law. And powerful people of high status were treated very differently from people who were poor and who did not have a lot of status.

Beccaria’s ideas clashed dramatically with these practices. And I’ll go through some of the central principles that his work is based on.

Only the Law Can Prescribe Punishment

According to Beccaria, only the law can prescribe punishment. It is up to the legislator to define crime and to prescribe which punishment should be imposed. It is not up to a magistrate or a judge to impose a penalty if the legislator has not prescribed it. And neither is it up to a judge to change what the law says about how a crime should be punished. The judge should do exactly what the law says.

The Law Applies Equally to All People

In addition, Beccaria said that the law applies equally to all people. And so punishment should be the same for all people, regardless of their power and status.

Making the Law and Law Enforcement Public

Beccaria also believed in the power of making the law and law enforcement public. More specifically, laws should be published so that people actually know about them, and trials should be public, too. Only then can onlookers judge if the trial is fair.

According to Beccaria, the Law and Law Enforcement Should be Public

Beccaria: Punishments Should be Proportional, Certain, and Swift

Regarding severe punishment, Beccaria said that if severe punishments do not prevent crime, they should not be used. Instead, punishments should be proportional to the harm that the crime has caused. According to Beccaria, the aim of punishment is not to cause pain to the offender, but to prevent them from doing it again and to prevent other people from committing crime. In order to be able to do that, Beccaria believed that punishment should be certain and swift. He believed that if offenders were sure that they would be punished and if punishment would come as quickly as possible after the offense, that this would have the largest chance of preventing crime.

Beccaria Argued Against the Death Penalty

As another controversial issue, Beccaria argued against the death penalty. In his view, the state does not have the right to repay violence with more violence. And in addition to that, Beccaria believed that the death penalty was useless. The death penalty is momentary, it is not lasting and therefore the death penalty cannot be very successful in preventing crimes. Instead, lasting punishments, such as life imprisonment, would be more successful in preventing crimes, because potential offenders will find this a much more miserable condition than the death penalty.

Cesare Beccaria had radical ideas about crime and punishment for his time

No Right To Torture

Similarly, according to Cesare Beccaria, the state does not have the right to torture. Because no one is guilty until he or she is found guilty, no one has the right to punish a person by torturing him or her. Plus, people who are under torture will want the torture to stop and might therefore make false claims, including that they committed a crime they did not commit. So torture is also ineffective.

The Power of Education

Instead of torture and severe penalties, Beccaria believed that education is the most certain method of preventing crime.

Beccaria: Controversy and Success

Beccaria’s ideas are hardly controversial today, but they caused a lot of controversy at the time, because they were an attack on the entire criminal justice system. Beccaria initially published his essay anonymously, because he didn’t necessarily consider it to be a great idea to publish such radical ideas. And this idea was partly confirmed when the book was put on the black list of the Catholic Church for a full 200 years.

But even though his ideas were controversial back then, his essay became an immediate success. In fact, Cesare Beccaria’s ideas became the basis for all modern criminal justice systems and there is some evidence that his essay influenced the American and French revolutions which happened not long after the publication of the essay. His ideas were not original, because others had also proposed them, but Beccaria was the first one to present them in a consistent way. Many people were ready for the changes that he proposed, which is why his essay was such a success.

Beccaria ends his essay with what can be seen as a kind of summary of his view:

“So that any punishment be not an act of violence of one or of many against another, it is essential that it be public, prompt, necessary, minimal in severity as possible under given circumstances, proportional to the crime, and prescribed by the laws.”

You can find Cesare Beccaria’s full essay “On Crimes and Punishments” here .

Cesare Beccaria, father of criminology and classical criminology

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The first amendment, historic document, on crimes and punishments (1764).

Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria | 1764

Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, marquis of Gualdasco and Villaregio (1738-94), was the author of On Crimes and Punishments (1764). Inspired by the discussion of criminal law in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws , this Milanese wrote a systematic treatise on the subject that was almost immediately translated into English and French. In it, he argued that the sole purpose of punishment is deterrence, and he denounced torture, the entertainment of secret accusations, and the death penalty; suggested that pre-trial detention can rarely be justified; and called for promptitude in punishment. The impact of his little book on the post-revolutionary revisal of the laws in the various nascent American states was considerable.

Selected by

Paul Rahe

Professor of History and Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen

President and CEO, National Constitution Center

Colleen A. Sheehan

Colleen A. Sheehan

Professor of Politics at the Arizona State University School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership

Chapter 1: Of the Origin of Punishment

Laws are the conditions under which men, naturally independent, united themselves in society. Weary of living in a continual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty which became of little value, from the uncertainty of its duration, they sacrificed one part of it to enjoy the rest in peace and security. . . .

Chapter 2: Of the Right to Punish

Every punishment which does not arise from absolute necessity, says the great Montesquieu, is tyrannical. A proposition which may be made more general, thus. Every act of authority of one man over another, for which there is not an absolute necessity, is tyrannical. It is upon this, then, that the sovereign’s right to punish crimes is founded; that is, upon the necessity of defending the public liberty, intrusted to his care, from the usurpation of individuals. . . .

No man ever gave up his liberty merely for the good of the public. Such a chimera exists only in romances. Every individual wishes, if possible, to be exempt from the compacts that bind the rest of mankind. . . .

Observe, that by justice I understand nothing more than that bond, which is necessary to keep the interest of individuals united; without which, men would return to the original state of barbarity. All punishments, which exceed the necessity of preserving this bond, are in their nature unjust.

Chapter 6: Of the Proportion between Crimes and Punishments

It is not only the common interest of mankind that crimes should not be committed, but that crimes of every kind should be less frequent, in proportion to the evil they produce to society. Therefore, the means made use of by the legislature to prevent crimes, should be more powerful, in proportion as they are destructive of the public safety and happiness, and as the inducements to commit them are stronger. Therefore there ought to be a fixed proportion between crimes and punishments.

Chapter 12: Of the Intent of Punishments

From the foregoing considerations it is evident, that the intent of punishments is not to torment a sensible being, nor to undo a crime already committed. Is it possible that torments, and useless cruelty, the instruments of furious fanaticism, or of impotency of tyrants, can be authorized by a political body? which, so far from being influenced by passion, should be the cool moderator of the passions of individuals. Can the groans of a tortured wretch recal the time past, or reverse the crime he has committed? The end of punishment, therefore, is no other, than to prevent others from committing the like offence. Such punishments, therefore, and such a mode of inflicting them, ought to be chosen, as will make strongest and most lasting impressions on the minds of others, with the least torment to the body of the criminal.

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an essay on crimes and punishments beccaria summary

An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

  • Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria (author)
  • Voltaire (author)

An extremely influential Enlightenment treatise on legal reform in which Beccaria advocates the ending of torture and the death penalty. The book also contains a lengthy commentary by Voltaire which is an indication of high highly French enlightened thinkers regarded the work.

  • EBook PDF This text-based PDF or EBook was created from the HTML version of this book and is part of the Portable Library of Liberty.
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An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. By the Marquis Beccaria of Milan. With a Commentary by M. de Voltaire. A New Edition Corrected. (Albany: W.C. Little & Co., 1872).

The text is in the public domain.

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“ No man can be judged a criminal until he be found guilty; nor can society take from him the public protection, until it have been proved that he has violated the conditions on which it was granted. What right, then, but that of power, can authorise the punishment of a citizen, so long as there… ”

Excerpts from

An essay on crimes and punishments, by cesare beccaria translated from the italian, 1775 (original published in 1764), introduction, chapter i: of the origin of punishments, chapter ii: of the right to punish, chapter vi: of the proportion between crimes and punishments, chapter xii: of the intent of punishments, chapter xix: of the advantage of immediate punishment, chapter xxvii: of the mildness of punishments.

An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

Anonymous 1767 English translation of Dei delitti e delle pene (1764). Foundational text of modern criminology. Famous for the Marquis Beccaria's arguments against torture and capital punishment. Warning: template has been deprecated. — Excerpted from Dei delitti e delle pene on Wikipedia , the free encyclopedia.

PUNISHMENTS,

TRANSLATED FROM THE ITALIAN;

COMMENTARY,

ATTRIBUTED TO

Mons. De VOLTAIRE,

TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH.

THE FOURTH EDITION

Printed for F. Newbery, at the Corner of St. Paul's Church-Yard.

  • Preface of the Translator

an essay on crimes and punishments beccaria summary

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an essay on crimes and punishments beccaria summary

Detail from The Good Government (1338-9), by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. To the right: Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice seated above prisoners. From a fresco at the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy. Photo by Getty Images

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An essay on crimes and punishments.

APA Citation Beccaria, Cesare, marchese di. (1778). An essay on crimes and punishments. Printed for Alexander Donaldson, and sold at his shops in London and Edinburgh. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5479/sil.36417.39088001520584

MLA Citation Beccaria, Cesare, marchese di. An essay on crimes and punishments. A new edition corrected., Printed for Alexander Donaldson, and sold at his shops in London and Edinburgh, 1778, https://doi.org/10.5479/sil.36417.39088001520584

Chicago Beccaria, Cesare, marchese di. An essay on crimes and punishments. Printed for Alexander Donaldson, and sold at his shops in London and Edinburgh, 1778. doi: https://doi.org/10.5479/sil.36417.39088001520584

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An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

By cesare beccaria.

A shy and retiring man prone to unpredictable moods and educated in the law as well as economics, [1] Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) was perhaps an unlikely figure to trigger a veritable revolution in criminology. As a young man, he fell in with brothers Pietro and Alessandro Verri and their “academy of fists,” [2] a Milanese organization referred to variously as an “intellectual circle” [3] and a “literary society,” [4] through which Beccaria was initiated into Enlightenment thought. [5] The Verri brothers supplied the assignment and the insider knowledge of the criminal justice system of the day, and at the behest of this group, Becarria completed his famous essay On Crimes and Punishments in 1764. [6]

an essay on crimes and punishments beccaria summary

In the time of its writing, Beccaria’s propositions that onerous punishments like torture and execution were unnecessarily cruel, disproportionate, and unlikely to serve as effective deterrents were novel. Although they owed a debt to his intellectual forebears, [7] these ideas were both radical and attractive to the European political and intellectual elite. [8] On Crimes and Punishments was rapidly translated into a host of other languages. [9] As well as informing a number of state statutes in the United States, [10] in insisting upon a balance between fidelity to the social contract and the need to ensure that criminal punishment is useful and beneficial to society, the work can be said to prefigure one of today’s two dominant schools of penological thought—utilitarianism—as well as the death penalty abolition movement. [11]

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Dean's Memo [12] includes the 1767 English edition of An Essay on Crimes and Punishments based on a reference in William Clarkin's biography of Wythe. In discussing Thomas Jefferson's education under Wythe, Clarkin states "[w]e do know that Jefferson studied ... Beccaria's Crime and Punishment " but Clarkin provides no source of corroborating evidence. [13] Brown's Bibliography [14] lists Beccaria's work in a choice of three languages (Italian, French, and English) and multiple editions. The Wolf Law Library purchased the first English edition as listed in Dean's memo.

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

Marbled boards with leather corners rebacked in period-style calf with blind tooling and red label to spine. Purchased from Meyer Boswell Books, Inc.

Images of the library's copy of this book are available on Flickr. View the record for this book in William & Mary's online catalog .

an essay on crimes and punishments beccaria summary

  • An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (7MB PDF)
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  • ↑ Encyclopædia Britannica Online , s.v. " Cesare Beccaria ," accessed October 10, 2013.
  • ↑ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , s.v. " Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) ," accessed October 10, 2013.
  • ↑ Encyclopædia Britannica Online , s.v. "Cesare Beccaria."
  • ↑ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)."
  • ↑ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , s.v. "Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794)".
  • ↑ Memorandum from Barbara C. Dean , Colonial Williamsburg Found., to Mrs. Stiverson, Colonial Williamsburg Found. (June 16, 1975), 9 (on file at Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary).
  • ↑ William Clarkin, Serene Patriot: A Life of George Wythe (Albany, New York: Alan Publications, 1970), 42.
  • ↑ Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13433 .

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  1. Beccaria

    Beccaria's famous work, "On Crimes and Punishments," was published in 1764, when he was 26 years old. His essay called out the barbaric and arbitrary ways in which the criminal justice system operated.

  2. An Essay On Crimes and Punishment

    of Cesare Beccaria (in particular On Crimes and Punishments [1764]), argue that, by legitimizing the very behaviour that the law seeks to repress—killing—capital punishment is counterproductive in the moral message it conveys. Moreover, they urge, when it is used for lesser crimes, capital punishment is immoral because it is wholly… Read More

  3. On Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Beccaria

    Instructor Ashley Dugger View bio Read about "On Crimes and Punishments" by Cesare Beccaria. Learn who Beccaria was and what his theories and beliefs were. Understand his impact on criminal...

  4. On Crimes and Punishments (1764)

    Chapter 1: Of the Origin of Punishment Laws are the conditions under which men, naturally independent, united themselves in society. Weary of living in a continual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty which became of little value, from the uncertainty of its duration, they sacrificed one part of it to enjoy the rest in peace and security. . . .

  5. On Crimes and Punishments

    Principles Illustration from the 6th edition. On Crimes and Punishments was the first critical analysis of capital punishment that demanded its abolition. Beccaria described the death penalty as: the war of a nation against a citizen ...

  6. PDF The Online Library of Liberty

    An extremely influential Enlightenment treatise on legal reform in which Beccaria advocates the ending of torture and the death penalty. The book also contains a lengthy commentary by Voltaire which is an indication of high highly French enlightened thinkers regarded the work.

  7. On Crimes and Punishments

    Beccaria's summary statement on crimes and punishments is that 'In order that any punishment should not be an act of violence committed by one person or many against a private citizen, it is essential that it should be public, prompt, necessary, the minimum possible under the given circumstances, proportionate to the crimes, and established by l...

  8. PDF 1. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

    Beccaria's book, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, presents the first of the modern or scientific theories of crime. The book, first pub lished in 1764, became the foundation for the classical theory of criminology, which dominated explanations of crime for close to 100 years.

  9. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

    An extremely influential Enlightenment treatise on legal reform in which Beccaria advocates the ending of torture and the death penalty. The book also contains a lengthy commentary by Voltaire which is an indication of high highly French enlightened thinkers regarded the work. ... An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. By the Marquis Beccaria of ...

  10. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

    The first systematic study of the principles of crime and punishment. Originally published: London: Printed for E. Newberry, 1775. viii, [iv], 179, lxxix pp. Infused with the spirit of the Enlightenment, its advocacy of crime prevention and the abolition of torture and capital punishment marked a significant advance in criminological thought, which had changed little since the Middle Ages.

  11. Essay on Crimes and Punishments

    Excerpts from An Essay on Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Beccaria translated from the Italian, 1775 (original published in 1764) Introduction In every human society, there is an effort continually tending to confer on one part the height of power and happiness, and to reduce the other to the extreme of weakness and misery.

  12. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

    An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (1764) by Cesare Beccaria, translator not mentioned Preface of the Translator → information about this edition . sister projects: Wikidata item. Anonymous 1767 English translation of Dei delitti e delle pene (1764). Foundational text of modern criminology.

  13. Cesare Beccaria's radical ideas on crime and punishment

    In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract, which provided Beccaria with an ideological framework: his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764) was published two years later, and 25 years before the French Revolution. Beccaria's manifesto against cruel punishment spread swiftly through Europe, igniting radical reforms of repressive and ...

  14. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

    An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. Archives of Sexuality & Gender: Sex and Sexuality, Sixteenth to Twentieth Century. Core collection. Criminal justice & criminology. Issue 47183 of Early American imprints. History of capital punishment. Legal classics library. World trials library. Author.

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  17. An essay on crimes and punishments : Beccaria, Cesare, marchese di

    An essay on crimes and punishments by Beccaria, Cesare, marchese di, 1738-1794; Voltaire, 1694-1778. Publication date 1778 Topics Criminal law, Crime, Criminals, Punishment, Capital punishment, Torture, Law reform Publisher Edinburgh, Printed for Alexander Donaldson Collection smithsonian Contributor

  18. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments

    A shy and retiring man prone to unpredictable moods and educated in the law as well as economics, [1] Cesare Beccaria (1738 - 1794) was perhaps an unlikely figure to trigger a veritable revolution in criminology.

  19. An essay on crimes and punishments : Beccaria, Cesare, marchese di

    An essay on crimes and punishments by Beccaria, Cesare, marchese di, 1738-1794. Publication date 1769 Topics Law reform, Capital punishment, Criminal Law, Crime, Punishment, Capital punishment, Crime, Criminal law, Criminals, Law reform, Punishment Publisher London : Printed for F. Newbery at the corner of St. Paul's Church-yard

  20. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments : Voltaire; Cesare Beccaria : Free

    LibriVox recording of An Essay on Crimes and Punishments by Voltaire; Cesare Beccaria. (Translated by Edward Duncan Ingraham.) Read in English by Carolin Ksr Beccaria's treatise On Crimes and Punishments, which condemns disproportionate and irrational penalties as well as torture and the death penalty in general, is said to mark the peak of Enlightenment in Milan.

  21. Summary : On Crimes And Punishments

    Summary : On Crimes And Punishments 1139 Words 5 Pages Ingrid Nin "Licentious". "Ill-directed". "Barbarity". These are only some of the words used by Enlightenment philosophe, Cesare Beccaria, to describe the manner in which the Old Regime handled the criminal justice system in his book, On Crimes and Punishments.

  22. An essay on crimes and punishments : translated from the Italian : with

    Beccaria's very influential "Dei Delitti e delle Pene" was first published in Livorno in 1764, and the first English translation followed in 1767. Beccaria's book brought into the language the phrase "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" and his arguments about crime and punishment, revolutionary in their time, are part and parcel of ...