Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments) 1764
Beccaria ascribed his “conversion to philosophy” to Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes and claimed he had rid himself from the effects of his “fanatical” Jesuit education by studying Helvétius, Buffon, Diderot, Hume, d’Alembert, Condillac and Rousseau. He acknowledged in his book the legal philosophy of “the immortal Montesquieu”, the libertarianism of Rousseau’s Contrat social and the rationalist methodology of Helvétius.
Beccaria’s book caused immediate controversy in Italy, after only two years it appeared in six editions. In France, where it was translated by Morellet in 1765, it was enthusiastically reviewed in learned and popular journals. Grimm wrote that it would be desirable “if all the legislators of Europe would take M. Beccaria’s ideas into consideration,” d’Alembert said he was “enchanted” and “enthusiastic” and that he had spread the news of the book, “which should give its author an immortal reputation,” and in a letter to Beccaria, dated 30 May 1768, Voltaire called him a labourer “in behalf of reason and humanity.” Voltaire also wrote and published a commentary on the book, applying its ideas to France. In Britain, Bentham called Beccaria “my master, first evangelist of reason, who hast raised thy Italy so much above England and also France” and credited him for setting him “on the principle of utility” and the calculus of pleasures. Eden and Romilly also paid tribute. Jefferson copied passages from Dei delitti by the page and became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and Catherine of Russia called herself a supporter with the famous Nakaz of 1768 reproducing long sections from Beccaria’s work. Beccaria’s ideas stimulated many reforms, perhaps the most important being the Tuscan code, instituted in 1789 by Beccaria’s disciple, Archduke Leopold.
Beccaria described the laws of the eighteenth century “the dregs of the most barbarous of centuries” and claimed that all governments should guide their actions by the principle by which all law must be judged: “La massima felicità divisa nel maggior numero - the greatest happiness divided among the greatest number.”
Beccaria, diffident, often depressed, always reluntant to enter public debate, was modest in his expectations: “A philosopher’s voice is too weak for the tumults and the shouting of so many men guided by blind habit. But the few wise men scattered over the face of the earth will echo me in their hearts.” In another passage - one which John Adams used to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre - Beccaria writes, “if I have no other merit then to have been the first of offer Italy, with some good evidence, what other nations have dared to write and are beginning to practice, I should consider myself fortunate; but if, by upholding the rights of man and of unconquerable truth, I should contribute to saving, from the spasms and agonies of death, some miserable victim of tyranny or of equally fatal ignorance, the thanks and tears of one innocent man in his transports of joy would console me for the disdain of mankind.”
Dei delitti e delle pene was translated into English in 1767.