Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) is to be counted among the many thinkers who, through their published works, affected the course of civilization in positive He wrote on crimes and punishments (Dei delitti e delle pene) long before Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote his Crime and Punishment: a novel in which Romanovich Rasolnikov murders a ruthless pawnbroker not only to punsh her, but to use her money to benefit humanity. This theme and the hero’s assumption in this novel that he had the right to kill on behalf of humanity is quite contrary to Beccaria’s thesis.
Beccaria was the first to declare that no person or institution (including the government) had the right to take the life of another human being. This was a revolutionary idea in the eighteenth century. Beccaria introduced the notion that crimes can be presented by giving young people proper education. It is the fear of being punished and not the fear of the severity of the punishment that would serve as a deterrent for criminal acts. He also pleaded for public trails and not closed-room convictions, and expounded on the idea that justice delayed is justice denied.
Beccaria was clever to pay homage to the government which allowed him to express his ideas openly. “If I am not afraid of raising myself above received wisdom,” he said, “I owe this happy boldness to the sweet and enlightened government under which I live.” His work was well received by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and translated into several languages. Nevertheless, there were also many who castigated, criticized and condemned for his book. A Demonical friar called Beccaria a fanatic, an imposter, a dangerous writer, and such. He described the book with such adjectives as monstrous, poisonous, and ridiculous. He went on to say that the book was impudently blasphemous, pathetic in reasoning, with tasteless and indecent jokes, sophisms, and gross assumptions. Beccaria was accused of twenty-one impieties.
It is important to recall these vestiges of what may seem to be a bygone era because in our own times it is not unusual to see such language used by the guardians of the status quo against those who openly call for the repudiation of social injustice and for change in long-practiced anachronistic and unconscionable behavior toward fellow human beings and groups.
We moderns take many of the values Beccaria advocated to be self-evident. But let us not forget that even today there are governments that hold secret trials, that torture their own citizens, and that condemn criminals to the hangman’s rope or the electric chair.
July 13, 2011