Beccaria, Cesare

Philippe Audegean


1Born in Milan and doctor of law from the university of Pavia, the marquis Beccaria (1738-1794) acquired sudden and international celebrity in 1764 with the publication of Dei delitti et delle pene (‘On crimes and punishments’), a short and incisive work which proposes a reform of penal law based on the protection of individual rights and the social utility of punishments. Against the Senate where sat the aristocratic elite of the city which claimed a judiciary authority recognized by Milan’s ancient constitution, Beccaria thus maintained the reformative will of the Austrian sovereigns, whom he was trying to orient in a more radical direction. Briefly professor of economics in an establishment of higher learning instituted by the imperial authorities (1769-1770), he occupied from 1771 until his death a post of high functionary in the Milanese administration that definitively associates his name with the figure of an Enlightenment reformer.

2Other than a brief work in his youth proposing a reform of the Milanese monetary system (1762), Beccaria also published in 1771 his Research concerning the nature of style, a work of poetics sprinkled with borrowings from the article “Goût” of the Encyclopédie (t. VII, 1757), where Montesquieu had founded the principle of taste on curiosity as psychological source of the esthetic pleasure of variety: writers “who have pleased the most are those who have excited in the spirit the most sensations at the same time” (Essai sur le goût, OC, t. IX, p. 499); the idea is taken up by Beccaria: “The more numerous such sensations there are to gleam about the principal ideas, the greater will be the pleasure for the reader or hearer, for he will feel shimmering within him a greater number of sensitive chords” (Research concerning the nature of style, p. 23).

3But it is especially in On crimes and punishments that a genuine dialogue can be seen to be engaged with Montesquieu, the only author cited by name (with the exception of a sarcastic reference to three jurists and one conventional allusion to Hobbes, but found in the notice “to the reader”, and which is not by Beccaria), three times moreover. Beccaria does not hide his debt, which he will mention again in a letter to his French translator: “The moment of my conversion to philosophy dates back five years, when reading the Persian Letters” (“L’époque de ma conversion à la philosophie date d’il y a cinq ans, en lisant les Lettres persanes”, lettre to André Morellet, 26 January 1766, Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Cesare Beccaria, vol. IV, Milan: Mediobanca, 1994, p. 222). A considerable debt, to the point of thinking that Beccaria did no more than apply Montesquieu’s ideas to one domain, penal law, which L’Esprit des lois, notably in Books VI and XII, no more than touched on: “The immortal President de Montesquieu passed rapidly over this topic” (“L’immortel président de Montesquieu a passé rapidement sur cette matière”, Des délits et des peines, introduction, 1991, p. 61 – Lyon, 2009, p. 145). But the Milanese immediately discourages this interpretation by underscoring the distance that separates himself from the Bordelais: “those who reflect and for whom I write will be able to distinguish my steps from his” (“les hommes qui pensent, et pour lesquels j’écris, sauront distinguer mes pas des siens”, ibid.).

4The relationship maintained with Montesquieu by the philosophes of the “Milan school” (expression of Voltaire repeated by Stendhal) united around Pietro Verri is symmetrical and inverse with respect to the relation they maintain with Rousseau. Indeed they like the republican political conclusions of the philosophe of Geneva, whose historical analyses they detest, as well as the critique of modernity, and the theory of amour-propre. In contrast they like the theory of history of the philosophe of La Brède, his praise of modern mildness, his definition of political freedom (EL, XI, 6, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1973, t. 1, p. 169), but they detest his political conclusions and his defense of intermediary bodies.

5The penal theory of On crimes and punishments thus owes much to Montesquieu. It is in reference to the theory of agreeable commerce that the work traces the portrait of a modernity called shake off the plague of war through the civilizing action of work and exchanges. The description of modern mores supports the call for the moderation of punishments, in conformity with the conclusions already drawn by Montesquieu beginning with the Letter 78 [80] of Persian Letters, and radicalised by Beccaria in an abolitionist sense. Reason teaches moreover, as Montesquieu showed (EL, VI, 12-13) followed by Beccaria (On crimes and punishments, § XXVII), that the efficacy of punishments is not proportional but inversely proportional to their severity.

6But it is especially in constant and explicit reference to the definition of political freedom enunciated in L’Esprit des lois that the Delitti founds the penal doctrine on the guaranty of individual rights. It is as if a syllogism of Montesquieu’s had constantly served as guide and justification for Beccaria’s project: “Political freedom consists in security, or at least in the opinion one has of one’s security. This security is never more under attack than in public or private accusations. It is therefore on the goodness of the criminal laws that the freedom of the citizen principally depends” (“La liberté politique consiste dans la sûreté, ou du moins dans l’opinion que l’on a de sa sûreté. Cette sûreté n’est jamais plus attaquée que dans les accusations publiques ou privées. C’est donc de la bonté des lois criminelles que dépend principalement la liberté du citoyen”, EL, XII, 2, t. I, p. 202). This definition of freedom has a considerable importance for all the authors of the Milan School. Repeated several times word for word in Delitti, it serves as a foundation for the very interpretation of the social contract, for the principle of the certainty of punishments, for the rejection of the principle of arbitrariness and the interpretation of the laws, for the distinction between sovereign and magistrate, for the critique of the Venitian system of “secret accusations” (Delitti, § XV ; EL, V, 8, t. I, p. 61, et XI, 6, t. I, p. 169), for the necessity of prompt judgments. Thus, the theory of the judicial syllogism exposed in chapter IV of the Delitti generalizes a precept associated by Montesquieu only with republics (EL, VI, 3), where the judges are only “the mouth that pronounces the words of the law; inanimate beings who can moderate neither their force nor their rigor” (“la bouche qui prononce les paroles de la loi ; des êtres inanimés qui n’en peuvent modérer ni la force ni la rigueur”, EL, XI, 6, t. I, p. 176). Finally, the cardinal principle of the necessity that alone confers legitimacy not only on all punishment, but more broadly on “every act of authority from one man to another” (“tout acte d’autorité d’homme à homme”, Delitti, § II, p. 63), is associated by Beccaria with a passage in L’Esprit des lois: “Every punishment that does not derive from necessity is tyrannical” (“Toute peine qui ne dérive pas de la nécessité est tyrannique”, EL, XIX, 14, t. I, p. 336).

7However, the explicit homage rendered to Montesquieu for the fecundity of his historical analyses and juridical definitions is accompanied by an implicit political criticism, which readers of the time could not fail to recognize. Engaged in the struggle against the Milanese Senate, the Lombard reformers were very hostile to the “parliamentary thesis” and have only fairly harsh words against the so-called “intermediary bodies”. Beccaria has recourse to antiphrasis and preterition: “I shall not examine […] whether it is true that [the distinction between nobles and commoners] constitutes an intermediary power which limits the excesses of the two extremes” (Delitti, § XXI, p. 111-209). Such a power is in effect, he responds, only an intermediario dispotismo, “all the more cruel in that it is less assured, which interposes itself between the sovereign and the people to smother the wishes of the latter” (§ XXVIII, p. 135-241). It is no doubt equally and largely against Montesquieu and this “intermediate despotism” of the grandees and nobles that the Delitti accords a new and positive value to the term despotism. Indeed, “the despotism of a large number of men can only be corrected by the despotism of one alone” (§ IV, p. 69; 155-157); thus, a state destined by its size to be despotic (as Montesquieu showed in L’Esprit des lois, VIII, 19-20) can be subdivided in repubbliche federative [‘federative republics’] (a concept taken from L’Esprit des lois, IX, 1, t. I, p. 141) only thanks to some dictator [dittatore dispotico] who has the courage of Sulla” (Delitti, § XXVI, p. 122-225) ; “this salutary, but temporary, despotism, is itself destined to favor the beneficent reign of ‘despotism of law’, opposed to ‘dispotismo degli uomini’” (§ IX, p. 82; p. 173).

8This distancing with respect to the “immortal President” thus takes place essentially on the level of political institutions, and not principles and juridical procedures. Thus, Beccaria has been reproached with contradicting the republican modernity of his doctrine when he affirms, in conformity with Montesquieu’s analyses (EL, XI, 6, t. I, p. 171), the utility of the law “which would have every man be judged by his peers” (Delitti, § XIV, p. 92; 185). But when Montesquieu maintains that there must be censors in a republic and not in monarchies (EL, V, 19), Beccaria rejects these distinctions and retains only the opposition of legitimate to illegitimate: “If a government needs censors and, generally, extraordinary magistrates, that comes from the weakness of its constitution and does not characterize a well-organized government” (Delitti, § XI, p. 85; 177).


Cesare Beccaria, Des délits et des peines. Dei delitti e delle pene, Introduction, trasnslation and notes by Philippe Audegean, Italian text established by Gianni Francioni, Lyon : ENS Éditions, 2009.

—, Ricerche intorno alla natura dello stile, éd. Gianmaro Gaspari, Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Cesare Beccaria, vol. II, Milan, Mediobanca, 1984.

—, Recherches concernant la nature du style, translation, annotation and postface by Bernard Pautrat, Paris : Éditions Rue d’Ulm/Presses de l’École normale supérieure, coll. « Versions françaises », 2001.

Jean Graven, “Montesquieu et le droit pénal”, La Pensée politique et constitutionnelle de Montesquieu: Bicentenaire de l’“Esprit des Lois”, “Recueil Sirey”, Paris, 1952, p. 209-254

Paola Berselli Ambri, L’Opera di Montesquieu nel Settecento italiano, Florence: Olschki, 1960, p. 173-176.

Robert Derathé, “Le droit de punir chez Montesquieu, Beccaria et Voltaire”, Atti del convegno internazionale su Cesare Beccaria, Turin, Accademia delle Scienze, 1966, p. 85-100.

Franco Venturi, Settecento riformatore, vol.1, Da Muratori a Beccaria, Turin: Einaudi, 1969, chap. IX (“La Milano del Caffè”), p. 645-747.

Salvatore Rotta, “Montesquieu nel Settecento italiano: note e ricerche”, Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica, G. Tarello ed., I, Bologne: Il Mulino, 1971, p. 55-209 (online on the Eliohs site:

Giovanni Tarello, Storia della cultura giuridica moderna. Assolutismo e codificazione del diritto, Bologne: Il Mulino, 1976, chap. VIII (“L’illuminismo e il diritto penale”), p. 383-483.

Cattaneo, Mario Alessandro, “Cesare Beccaria e l’illuminismo giuridico”, in Cesare Beccaria tra Milano e l’Europa, Roma-Bari: Cariplo-Laterza, 1990, p. 196-200.

Alberto Burgio, “Tra diritto e politica. Note sul rapporto Beccaria- Montesquieu”, in Rivista di storia della filosofia, LI, 3 (1996), p. 659-676 ; “Entre droit et politique”, Figures italiennes de la rationalité, C. Menasseyre et A. Tosel éd., Paris: Kimé, 1997, p. 375-395

Catherine Larrère, “Droit de punir et qualification des crimes de Montesquieu à Beccaria”, Beccaria et la culture juridique des Lumières, ed. M. Porret, Genève: Droz, 1997, p. 89-108.

Michel Porret, “‘Les lois doivent tendre à la rigueur plutôt qu’à l’indulgence’: Muyart de Vouglans versus Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 1 (1997), p. 65-76. (

David W. Carrithers, “Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Punishment”, History of Political Thought, XIX, 2 (1998), p. 213-240.

Piero Venturelli, “Considerazioni sui lettori di Montesquieu (XVIII-XX secolo)”, 1, 1999.

Michel Porret, « Montesquieu pénaliste à l’épreuve des réformateurs du droit pénal : la perfectibilité de L’Esprit des lois (1750-1790) », dans Actes du colloque international de Bordeaux pour le 250e anniversaire de L’Esprit des lois, Louis Desgraves dir., Bordeaux, Bibliothèque municipale, 1999, p. 326-341.

Céline Spector, “Montesquieu et la question du ‘doux commerce’”, Bordeaux 1999, p. 427-450.

Frederick Rosen, “Crime, Punishment and Liberty”, History of Political Thought, XX, 1 (1999), p. 173-185.

Alberto Burgio, “L’idea di eguaglianza tra diritto e politica nel Dei delitti e delle pene” Cesare Beccaria : la pratica dei lumi, ed. Vincenzo Ferrone et Gianni Francioni, Florence: Olschki, 2000, p. 79-98.

Eluggero Pii, “Republicanism and Commercial Society in Eighteenth-century Italy”, Republicanism: a Shared European heritage, ed. Martin van Gelderen et Quentin Skinner, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, vol. II, p. 249-274.

Philippe Audegean, “Beccaria et l’histoire du concept de style. Empirisme et poétique”, Poétique, 136 (November 2003), p. 487-509; “Passions et liberté: loi de nature et fondement du droit en Italie à l’époque de Beccaria”, Studi settecenteschi, 23 (2003), p. 197-278.

Michel Porret, Beccaria: le droit de punir, Paris: Michalon, 2003.

Philippe Audegean, La philosophie de Beccaria. Savoir punir, savoir écrire, savoir produire, Paris : Vrin, 2010.

—, “La critique des corps intermédiaires à Milan et à Naples. ‘Distinguer mes pas des siens’”, Débats et polémiques autour de ‘L’Esprit des lois’, C. Volpilhac-Auger dir., Revue française d’histoire des idées politiques 35 (2012), p. 61-71.

Bibliographical reference

Audegean Philippe , « Beccaria, Cesare », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :