The Influence of Beccaria and Voltaire

May 28th, 2008

Today in society, concepts are hardly ever in their original form. It is extremely rare for anything to be in prototype form. Most ideas are based upon prior thoughts and beliefs. Even documents that our society is based upon have been derived from the philosophies of former innovative thinkers. Through their own new and radical philosophies, philosophers such as Beccaria and Voltaire from the Enlightenment period influenced future ideas of society and government and principles. By writing numerous books and essays, these philosophers were able to become the foundation of many important freedoms and principles.

Cesare Beccaria is most well known for his essay ‘On Crimes and Punishments’. Within this essay, Beccaria explained his philosophy of the need to punish. This philosophy impacted our society, specifically in The Bill of Rights. Beccaria has also been recognized for his views upon the death penalty. This influenced the movement to abolish the death penalty.

In On Crimes and Punishments, Beccaria writes, “Thus it was necessity that forced men to give up apart of their liberty. It is certain, then, that every individual would choose to put into the public stock the smallest portion possible, as much only as was sufficient to engage others to defend it. The aggregate of these, the smallest portions possible, forms the right of punishing; all that extends beyond this, is abuse, not justice. Observe that by justice I understand nothing more than that bond which is necessary to keep the interest of individuals united, without which men would return to their original state of barbarity. All punishments, which exceed the necessity of preserving this bond, are in their nature unjust” (8). Here, Beccaria is basically saying that punishment should be used to the smallest extent possible. Punishment is necessary to keep man in line, letting him be aware that there are consequences for doing something against the law. However, punishing beyond what is necessary is cruel and unjust and there is no purpose to it.

In The Bill of Rights, Amendment VIII states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” (“Constitution of the United States” 798). This amendment clearly states that no unjust actions such as excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishment will be used upon anyone. This, being guaranteed in the United States’ Constitution, ensures that everyone will be protected. Beccaria wrote argued that there was no need for unnecessary punishment. The writers of the Constitution took note of his efforts and philosophy, and decided to incorporate it within our laws; therefore, Amendment VIII was truly influenced by Beccaria.

Beccaria was also recognized as being against the death penalty. “In giving man the example of cruelty, the death penalty is for society one more evil…. The death penalty is not a right but a war of the state against the citizen” (“Declaration of the Consortium ‘October 2001′”). Beccaria is saying that the death penalty is a violation and unjust action against a person. By using the words “evil” and “cruelty”, Beccaria shows his strong, opposing point of view for the death penalty. This point of view became inspiration for others, leading to today.

There is a growing movement with the purpose to abolish the death penalty. There is a perfect example of this within Jesse Jackson’s Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice and the Death Penalty. “Violence begets violence, and by endorsing the death penalty, we as a nation are perpetuating the cycle of violence. We are telling our citizens that murder can be justified, because the government does it….”(21). Jackson mainly says that as long as the death penalty exists, nothing will be able to be corrected. The crimes and consequences are in a continuous cycle and will continue to be a cycle until the penalty is abolished. Jackson is obviously opposed to the death penalty and clearly believes that society would be less violent. Beccaria influenced today’s growing movement against the death penalty by his early efforts in voicing his opinion. By Jackson’s strong words of opposition, one can infer that he gained much influence from Beccaria. After all, how could he have not, when Beccaria was amongst the first to establish such a point of view?

Francois-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire was well known for fight for tolerance and being extremely bold in his sense of writing. His everlasting effect upon society is shown in The Bill of Rights. Within many of his works, Voltaire criticized those who were not tolerant of diversity. He also wrote about “free will” which can be interpreted as freedom of speech.

In Voltaire’s The Philosophical Dictionary, he wrote, “Tonight I was in a meditative mood. I was absorbed in the contemplation of nature; I admired the immensity, the movements, the harmony of those infinite globes which the vulgar do not know how to admire” (Redman 187). Within this simple quote, Voltaire degrades those who do not accept different religions by calling them “vulgar”. That by itself is enough to show his point of view. However, with his statement: “I admired the immensity, the movements, the harmony of those infinite globes”, he implies how he respects the diversity and willingly accepts it. From this quote, many things can be interpreted. “Infinite globes” represent the numerous amounts of religions. Voltaire describes how he admired the vastness of diversity, the hardships and paths of the religions, and beauty of the many religions. This exemplifies his complete appreciation of diversity, urging his reader to feel the same way. He basically implies that everything should be tolerated, and one who does not tolerate is outlandish.

Voltaire also encouraged that people should voice their opinions. This idea becomes clear with several quotes. “It is lamentable that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind” (“Voltaire”). Voltaire is basically saying that although a speaker may be true to his country, freedom of speech is unfortunately not allowed. With the use of the word “patriot”, defined as one who loves their country, Voltaire makes it seem as if the reader’s duty is to voice their thoughts. “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers” (“Voltaire”). With this quote, Voltaire implies that one should be judged with their ability to speak out and question something. With this implication, the reader would realize that speaking out is favorable, and would then do so. “Everything is true, and everybody is right” ( Richter and Ricardo 9). This quote clearly states that everything is acceptable. Voltaire’s philosophy regarding freedom of thought could easily be summarized with this quote. He simply wanted people to be tolerant with every idea, by saying “everybody is right”. With these three quotes, Voltaire speaks of the concept of one expressing their beliefs or questioning something to be favorable and allowed.

Voltaire continued to emphasize his philosophy in further writings. In The Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote about freedom concerning thought and what it means to be free. “What is the meaning of this phrase ‘to be free’? it means ‘to be able,’ or assuredly it has no sense. For the will ‘to be able’ is as ridiculous at bottom as to say that the will is yellow or blue, round or square. To will is to wish and to be free is to be able” (Redman 125). In other words, Voltaire is saying that in order to be free, one must do as they think and wish. Freedom cannot exist when one is limiting what they are able to do. “Liberty then is only and can be only the power to do what one wills” (127). If one decides to limit themselves, they are not free. Liberty is when they freely exercise their right to openly express themselves. This concept was the foundation for the idea of freedom of speech.

Voltaire’s impression upon society is best well noted in the first Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (“Constitution of the United States” 798). This means that Congress cannot make laws of restriction regarding the establishment or practicing of any religion, limits within the right of freedom of speech and press, and limiting the right for people to gather in a peaceful manner to petition the government. Regarding religion, Amendment I protects the right of anyone to practice their own religion. They cannot stop a new religion from forming, nor can they stop any traditions or practices. This implies that diversity is accepted. This was one of Voltaire’s main goals, to promote tolerance. In regard to freedom of thought, Amendment I states that one is allowed to think as they please and let it be known without any limitations. This idea obviously originates from Voltaire. Due to his ideas that questioning should be allowed, and that everything is correct, Americans live in a society where they are allowed to express themselves as they please.

During the Enlightenment period, Beccaria and Voltaire were among the many philosophers that let their new, innovative ideas be known. Their philosophies promoted the liberties of all men, which were not provided for during the time in which they lived. Through their writings, they were able to influence the founding of a new government that is still in place today. Even though many may owe their freedoms to the writers of the Constitution, they truly owe some of their natural rights to Beccaria and Voltaire.

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