Cesare Beccaria: Theories, Impact & Jurisprudence

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  • 0:03 Cesare Beccaria
  • 0:45 Bio
  • 2:52 Theories
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and theories of the Italian man who first formulated many of the theories upon which our modern penal systems operate: Cesare Beccaria.

Cesare Beccaria

Do you know someone who has ever been arrested? A terrible occurrence, friends and family often have so many questions: what did they do? Can we see them? Will they have to go to jail? While these are tough questions with at times even tougher answers, one thing that should be set in stone is the fact that most prisoners in the Western world will not be subject to torture.

This is because the penal systems in most Western countries observe several rules that grant even murderers some basic human rights. Criminals are guaranteed things like due process and assurances against a cruel punishment. Many of these common principles of today's Western penal systems were first laid out by one man, Cesare Beccaria.


Beccaria was an Italian born in Milan to an aristocratic family in 1738. After a strict childhood education by Jesuits, Beccaria enrolled in the University of Parma where he received a law degree in 1758. Afterward, Beccaria returned to Milan where he angered his parents by marrying below his social class in 1761.

It was not only in marriage where Beccaria would break with tradition. Soon after his return to Milan, he and two friends formed the Academy of Fists. Modeled on other Enlightenment-era intellectual groups, the literary threesome claimed to be 'dedicated to waging relentless war against economic disorder, bureaucratic petty tyranny, religious narrow-mindedness and intellectual pedantry.' The threesome researched and wrote articles over various topics concerning economics, law and other areas prone to contemporary debate. For example, Beccaria's first published essay was 'On Remedies for the Monetary Disorders of Milan in the year 1762.'

Beccaria's most famous work, however, was published in 1764. Beccaria first published the essay 'On Crimes and Punishments' anonymously. He did this because the work critiqued several existing practices in the 18th-century Milanese justice system, in addition to laying out several theories rethinking the very basis of justice and penal codes. Only after the government accepted the work did Beccaria let his identity be known.

The essay was widely read across Europe in enlightened circles and by leaders of state, like Catherine the Great, gaining Beccaria continent-wide acclaim. So popular did Beccaria's essay become that he was invited to tour Paris by intellectual circles there. Beccaria accepted, but cut his trip short after he failed to fit in. The quiet Beccaria quickly gained a reputation in France as being immature and an idiot.

After returning, Beccaria failed to publish anything further, and he cut ties with his friends from the Academy of Fists. He then moved to Austria, where he worked quietly for the Austrian government until his death in 1794.


According to Beccaria in 'Crimes and Punishments,' all human beings have three basic things: free will, the ability for rational and self-interested thought and manipulability. Beccaria claimed what caused people to commit crimes is that the choices they freely make in their own self-interest at times clash with the interests of society at large. Many of these criminal acts could be foreseen, and therefore it behooved society to manipulate those planning criminal acts by enacting punishments high enough to deter people from committing such crimes.

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