Beccaria's 'On Crimes and Punishments': A Mirror on the History of the Foundations of Modern Criminal Law

Beccaria’s treatise "On Crimes and Punishments" (1764) has become a placeholder for the classical school of thought in criminology, for deterrence-based public policy, for death penalty abolitionism, and for liberal ideals of legality and the rule of law. A source of inspiration for Bentham and Blackstone, an object of praise for Voltaire and the Philosophies, a target of pointed critiques by Kant and Hegel, the subject of a genealogy by Foucault, the object of derision by the Physiocrats, rehabilitated and appropriated by the Chicago School of law and economics — these ricochets and reflections on Beccaria’s treatise reveal multiple dimensions of Beccaria’s work and provide an outline of a history of the foundations of modern criminal law. In becoming a classic text that has been so widely and varyingly cited, though perhaps little read today, "On Crimes and Punishments" may be used as a mirror on the key projects over the past two centuries and a half in the domain of penal law and punishment theory — and this essay hopes to contribute, in a small way, to such an endeavor. In the end, we may learn as much about those who have appropriated and used Beccaria than we would about Beccaria himself — perhaps more.