Beccaria publishes On Crime and Punishment

In 1764, Cesare Beccaria published On Crime and Punishment, a work that advocated for reform in the European criminal justice system. Borrowing from the works of Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu, Beccaria advocated for a system in which penalties matched the severity of the crimes they punished and where the threat of the gallows wasn’t the main tool for keeping the citizenry in line. This idea of institutions being judged on what did the most good for the most people foreshadows the ideas of utilitarianism that would become better developed in the early 19th century.

The work was a hit across Europe, and as other philosophers read it, a new, more enlightened, way of looking at punishment emerged. The emphasis began to shift away from purely punitive measures and towards the idea of reforming criminals. Drawing from the Enlightenment idea of the perfectibility of humans, reformers believed they could devise institutions that would turn criminals into better people.

The Englishman Jeremy Bentham was one such reformer. Remembered as one of the pioneering philosophers in the development of utilitarianism, Bentham took the ideas that Beccaria alluded to and applied them to life as a whole rather than just criminal justice. He believed that the best way to manage society was through a broad network of institutions that confined people based on their category, such as pauper or orphan, and controlled every aspect of their inhabitants’ lives. While Bentham’s so-called panopticons never came to dominate Europe, the idea of a total institution being used to reform certain social groups formed the basic scaffold of what many workhouses aimed to do.

Allen, Francis A. “Cesare Beccaria.” Encyclopædia Britannica. June 20, 2017. Accessed January 17, 2018. www./

Driver, Julia. “The History of Utilitarianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 27, 2009. Accessed January 2, 2018.

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: Penitentiaries in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

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