from Of Crimes and Punishments


Cesare Bonesana Beccaria was an Italian jurist and economist. Born of aristocratic parents in Milan, he was educated in a Jesuit school in Parma, which he found stifling to his character. After graduating in 1758 with a law degree from the University of Pavia, Beccaria returned to Milan where he began an association with a group of young intellectuals and reformers associated with the Enlightenment, led by Count Pietro Verri. At Verri’s urging, Beccaria began work on what was to be his most influential work, Dei delitti e delle pene (1764) (Of Crimes and Punishments), a critical study of criminal law. The work was enthusiastically received and, at the age of 26, Beccaria was immediately famous worldwide.

In this work, Beccaria systematically criticizes the penal system of the time, which was characterized by frequent torture, secret proceedings, abuse of power, and excessive punishment. Beccaria’s argument is deduced from a Rousseau-like social-contract theory and stressed the notion of “penal proportion.” The degree of punishment is only justified by the degree that it endangers society; excess punishment is unjust and tyrannical. Beccaria also built his arguments using ideas from Montesquieu and the principle of utilitarianism—that criminal policies should seek the greatest good for the greatest number. He was also the first modern writer to argue against capital punishment, becoming the father of an abolitionist movement that continues to this day.

Beccaria’s other important writings, in economics, were based on lectures given when he held the chair in public economy and commerce in the Palatine School in Milan from 1768 to 1770. These writings, including Elementi di economia pubblica, which was published posthumously in 1804, anticipated the economic theories of Smith and Malthus. From 1771 until his death, Beccaria served on the Supreme Economic Council of Milan. His later life was characterized by ill health and family troubles, as well as the terror of the French Revolution, which he found excessive.

In this selection from Of Crimes and Punishments, Beccaria argues that if killing is sometimes justified, then suicide may be also. He answers the Aristotelian argument that suicide harms society by pointing out that the harm is less than that of an emigré, since the emigré takes his property with him but the suicide leaves his behind. He believes that laws punishing suicide, particularly those that involve forfeiture of property and dishonor the family, are both unjust and ineffective. Voltaire [q.v.] commented on this passage with remarks similar to these in entries in his Philosophical Dictionary.

Cesare Bonesana Beccaria, An Essay On Crimes and Punishments, tr. from the French by Edward D. Ingraham, New Edition, Ch. XXXII, “Of Suicide”; Ch. XIX, “On Suicide.” Albany, NY: W. C. Little & Co., 1872, pp. 121-126, 216-218. Also available online from the Constitution Society.


Of Suicide

Suicide is a crime which seems not to admit of punishment, properly speaking; for it cannot be inflicted but on the innocent, or upon an insensible dead body. In the first case, it is unjust and tyrannical, for political liberty supposes all punishments entirely personal; in the second, it has the same effect, by way of example, as the scourging a statue. Mankind love life too well; the objects that surround them, the seducing phantom of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest error of mortals, which makes men swallow such large draughts of evil, mingled with a very few drops of good, allure them too strongly, to apprehend that this crime will ever be common from its unavoidable impunity. The laws are obeyed through fear of punishment, but death destroys all sensibility. What motive then can restrain the desperate hand of suicide?

He who kills himself does a less injury to society than he who quits his country for ever; for the other leaves his property behind him, but this carries with him at least a part of his substance. Besides, as the strength of society consists in the number of citizens, he who quits one nation to reside in another, becomes a double loss. This then is the question: whether it be advantageous to society that its members should enjoy the unlimited privilege of migration?

Every law that is not armed with force, or which, from circumstances, must be ineffectual, should not be promulgated. Opinion, which reigns over the minds of men, obeys the slow and indirect impressions of the legislator, but resists them when violently and directly applied; and useless laws communicate their insignificance to the most salutary, which are regarded more as obstacles to be surmounted than as safeguards of the public good. But further, our perceptions being limited, by enforcing the observance of laws which are evidently useless, we destroy the influence of the most salutary.

From this principle a wise dispenser of public happiness may draw some useful consequences, the explanation of which would carry me too far from my subject, which is to prove the inutility of making the nation a prison. Such a law is vain; because, unless inaccessible rocks or impassible seas divide the country from all others, how will it be possible to secure every point of the circumference, or how will you guard the guards themselves? Besides, this crime once committed cannot be punished; and to punish it before hand would be to punish the intention and not the action, the will, which is entirely out of the power of human laws. To punish the absent by confiscating his effects, besides the facility of collusion, which would inevitably be the case, and which, without tyranny, could not be prevented, would put a stop to all commerce with other nations. To punish the criminal when he returns, would be to prevent him from repairing the evil he had already done to society, by making his absence perpetual. Besides, any prohibition would increase the desire of removing, and would infallibly prevent strangers from settling in the country.

What must we think of a government which has no means but fear to keep its subjects in their own country, to which, by the first impressions of their infancy, they are so strongly attached. The most certain method of keeping men at home is to make them happy; and it is the interest of every state to turn the balance, not only of commerce, but of felicity, in favour of its subjects. The pleasures of luxury are not the principle sources of this happiness, though, by preventing the too great accumulation of wealth in a few hands, they become a necessary remedy against the too great inequality of individuals, which always increases with the progress of society.

When the populousness of a country does not increase in proportion to its extent, luxury favours despotism for where men are most dispersed there is least industry, and where there is least industry the dependence of the poor upon the luxury of the rich is greatest, and the union of the oppressed against the oppressors is least to be feared. In such circumstances, rich and powerful men more easily command distinction, respect, and service, by which they are raised to a greater height above the poor; for men are more independent the less they are observed, and are least observed when most numerous. On the contrary, when the number of people is too great in proportion to the extent of a country, luxury is a check to despotism; because it is a spur to industry, and because the labour of the poor affords so many pleasures to the rich, that they disregard the luxury of ostentation, which would remind the people of their dependence. Hence we see, that, in vast and depopulated states, the luxury of ostentation prevails over that of convenience; but in countries more populous, the luxury of convenience tends constantly to diminish the luxury of ostentation.

The pleasures of luxury have this inconvenience, that though they employ a great number of hands, yet they are only enjoyed by a few, whilst the rest who do not partake of them, feel the want more sensibly on comparing their state with that of others. Security and liberty, restrained by the laws, are the basis of happiness, and when attended by these, the pleasures of luxury favour population, without which they become the instruments of tyranny. As the most noble and generous animals fly to solitude and inaccessible deserts, and abandon the fertile plains to man their greatest enemy, so men reject pleasure itself when offered by the hand of tyranny.

But, to return: — If it be demonstrated that the laws which imprison men in their own country are vain and unjust, it will be equally true of those which punish suicide; for that can only be punished after death, which is in the power of God alone; but it is no crime with regard to man, because the punishment falls on an innocent family. If it be objected, that the consideration of such a punishment may prevent the crime, I answer, that he who can calmly renounce the pleasure of existence, who is so weary of life as to brave the idea of eternal misery, will never be influenced by the more distant and less powerful considerations of family and children.

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