Cesare Beccaria was born in Milan, Italy on May 15, 1738. He obtained his doctorate in laws at the tender age of 20.

He penned Dei deliti e delle pene (Essay on Crimes and Punishments) in 1764 which was translated to English, French (1766, Des délits et des peines) and brought to light the barbarous nature of many punishments especially torture chambers (see, for example, the Law's Hall of Horror).

It was first published anonymously, Beccaria later explaining that he wanted to "defend humanity without being its martyr".

But it was a sensation across Europe. In Spain, still in the iron grips of the Spanish Inquisition, the book was banned.

Cesare BeccariaBut Beccaria was acclaimed in France and when Catherine II of Russia offered him a place in her court, Milan, to keep their homegrown genius, promptly responded with a slew of appointments.

His main theory was that punishment for crime should be proportionate and not in any event to exceed what was necessary to maintain public order. It should also be imposed regardless of social standing of the offender.

He opposed capital punishment, torture and secret trials and he suggested hard labor or incarceration for persons convicted of murder. He described capital punishment as:

"... a war of a whole nation against a citizen whose destruction they consider as necessary or useful to the general good."

Milan statute of BeccariaOn torture, his argument left nothing in doubt:

"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 authorize the punishment of a citizen so long as there remains any doubt of his guilt?

"Either he is guilty, or not guilty. If guilty, he should only suffer the punishment ordained by the laws, and torture becomes useless, as his confession is unnecessary, if he be not guilty, you torture the innocent; for, in the eye of the law, every man is innocent whose crime has not been proved. Besides, it is confounding all relations to expect that a man should be both the accuser and accused; and that pain should be the test of truth, as if truth resided in the muscles and fibres of a wretch in torture. By this method the robust will escape, and the feeble be condemned. These are the inconveniences of this pretended test of truth, worthy only of a cannibal...."

He criticized the complexity and obscurity of unwritten law, especially as concerns criminal law. The people deserved clear and precise terms of criminal law lest they be at the mercy of judges. They need to know what conduct, precisely, is prohibited and what the punishment is. He also wrote with sting against criminal offences that were essentially religious crimes and sought to distance criminal law from the Church and canon law.

In 1791, he headed a commission of inquiry into the civil and justice system. That report was published shortly before his death on November 28, 1794.

The English justice system was greatly influenced by Dei deliti e delle pene.

REFERENCES:

  • Baumberger, P. editor, and others, Encyclopedia Universalis, Volume 3 (Paris: Editeurs Encyclopedia Universalis, 1989), page 932.
  • Beccaria, Cesare, Of Crimes and Punishment (1764); English translation
  • Statue is of Beccaria, located in Milan at Brera Palace.