A biography examines the 18th-century jurist Cesare Beccaria.
Beccaria, born in Milan in 1738, was the eldest son of an Italian aristocrat. Educated by Jesuits, the young noble went on to study law at the University of Pavia, emerging as a prominent man during the Age of Enlightenment. Although his name is not as well-remembered as Voltaire and Adam Smith, Beccaria made his own share of contributions to the advancement of modern thinking. As Bessler (Law/Univ. of Baltimore; The Death Penalty as Torture, 2017, etc.) explains, this book seeks to “restore Cesare Beccaria’s rightful place in the pantheon of the world’s most influential historical figures.” The main argument for Beccaria’s impact is his slender, though widely read, work published in 1764: Del Delitti e delle Pene (later translated into English as On Crimes and Punishments). His book argues against the use of torture and the death penalty in favor of more rational means for punishing criminals. While these may seem like obvious ideas to contemporary readers, Beccaria was writing at a time when state-mandated punishments were brutal. Jean Calas, a French merchant who met an excruciating end for allegedly murdering his son, was executed just two years before On Crimes and Punishments was circulated. Bessler argues that Beccaria’s work shaped not just European minds, but also many of the key figures of the American Revolution, including Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was “an undying and fervent Beccaria disciple.”
Beccaria’s influence on the Enlightenment and American jurisprudence is an intriguing and engrossing historical trail to follow. The Founding Fathers did not create their own works out of thin air. Following the accomplishments of a lesser-known figure like Beccaria becomes a rewarding exercise for the audience. In skillfully sorting out the many ideas that led to documents with as much longevity as the Constitution, the author shows readers how much thought went into concepts that many take for granted. Few would argue that someone should be executed for stealing and yet, as the volume vividly illustrates, this was the case in pre-Enlightenment Europe. But other aspects of the book are a bit muddled. A number of specifics in Bessler’s text are repeated, sometimes within the space of two pages and occasionally over the course of chapters. Readers are told not once, but twice in the same paragraph, that Voltaire’s body was interred in the Pantheon in Paris. The execution of Calas and Voltaire’s interest in the case are explained early on and then again nearly 100 pages later. Such repetitions give the work an odd feel. And deciphering the chronology of events is not as simple as it should be. This disorganization may leave readers flummoxed by small details as broader points are being made.
While this book delivers an informative account of an important philosopher, it sometimes suffers from repetition.