Cesare Beccaria ranked amongst the most remarkable intellectual minds of the Enlightenment era of the 18th century. His literary contributions have led to ground-breaking evolution in the fields of economics and criminology.
Cesare was born on March 15, 1738, in Milan, Italy. He hailed from an aristocratic family of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, however, his father had modest financial means. For his early education, Cesare was sent to Parma, where he attended a Jesuit school. He was not particularly content in the environment of the school, and often described his education at the school as “fanatical” and intolerant towards “development of human feelings”. Despite his discontentment with the school’s curriculum, Cesare proved himself a brilliant student and particularly excelled in mathematics. Since a very young age, Cesare began to show a tendency for rapid mood swings. His mood would go from avid zeal to bouts of fury in a matter of seconds, without any logical explanation, and he would end up depressed and sluggish for days at times. Cesare was a shy person, and did not find it easy to socialize in gatherings, however, he enjoyed a very lovable relationship with his family and close friends. After the completion of his primary education, he was accepted at the University of Parma, where he pursued a legal education, and received his law degree in 1758.
In the early 1760s, Cesare, along with his close companions Pietro and Alessandro Verri, laid down the foundation of a society dedicated to the reformation of the economic, political and administrative systems, titled “The Academy of Fists”. This society was based on the principals of the Enlightenment and its motive was “waging relentless war against economic disorder, bureaucratic tyranny, religious narrow-mindedness, and intellectual pedantry.” To develop an in depth understanding of the tyrannical forces they were at war against, Cesare began studying the French and British writings on the Enlightenment, and in 1762, he published his own analysis of the economic disruption, entitled “On Remedies for the Monetary Disorders of Milan in the Year 1762”. This composition was his first publication, and it enjoyed immense critical success.
Cesare continued writing for the society, and in 1764, he published his most acclaimed and thought-provoking essay, titled “On Crimes and Punishments”. The essay dealt with Cesare’s analysis of the legal system of his time, and he explored the various shortcomings of this system. In this essay, he describes the then-prevailing criminal justice system as “barbaric” and “antiquated”, and concluded that such laws should be formulated that equally protect the interests of the criminals as well as victims. He proposed and discussed how these particular laws must be formulated, who should formulate them and how they will benefit the entire society. Cesare advocated the need of just yet, sufficing punishments, and moreover, he emphasized the need for setting a particular criteria or punishment for each type of crime. The treatise also proposed several crime-prevention strategies, and assigned specific roles to be played by the various members of the court.
However, in fear of controversy and government disapproval, he chose to publish this essay anonymously. Despite his fears, the essay won immense approval, not only from Italy but various other parts of the world, as far as the United States. Catherine the Great is said to have publicly praised it, and the founders of the US, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams have cited it on numerous occasions during their speeches. Upon garnering the approval of such eminent personalities, Cesare decided to republish it under his own name.
Cesare Beccaria’ theories on criminal justice revolved around three main components: rational manner, free will and manipulability. He was a strong advocate of free will as being the ability to make choices, and he believed that individual must apply reasoning and logic while making decisions in order to achieve fulfilment and self-satisfaction. He believed that law and order existed to serve the society, and to uphold the values of the social contract. However, according to him, when people give preference to their personal goals and acted with self-centeredness, they often become engaged in crimes to fulfil their wants and hence, they break societal laws.
Cesare introduced the concept of manipulability, which he describes as the predictable ways individuals act rationally in pursuit of their interests, and this implementation of logic prevents them from violating the social contract and committing crimes, as they view crime as an irrational choice, its negative consequences far exceeding its benefits.
Cesare always encouraged and enjoyed his fascination with the field of economics and in 1768, he embarked on building a career in economics by accepting the position of the Chair in Public Economy and Commerce at the Palatine School in Milan. He also served as a lecturer at the Palatine School for the next two years. Through the notes formulated during his lectures, Cesare composed an economic analysis, titled “Elements of Public Economy”. The treatise was published in 1804, ten years after his death, and dealt with previously undiscovered topics such as the division of labor.
Cesare also served the Supreme Economic Council of Milan, where he made tireless efforts to bring about economics reforms. He gave great emphasis on solving the problems of public education and labor relations. While in office, he constructed a report on the series of strategies that led to France’s implementation of the metric system. Cesare enjoyed immense success in his economic career, however, it failed to surpass his fame as a criminologist. In 1790, he served on a committee based in Lombardy, that was dedicated to the reformation of civil and criminal law.
During his final years, Cesare became increasingly disturbed by the horrific activities of the French Revolution, and slowly began to slip into excessive depression and social withdrawal. He passed away on November 28, 1794, in his native city of Milan.