Historical Views of Torture vs. Torture Today

Though written over two hundred years ago, Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments remains relevant today. Many governments still endorse torture as a form of punishment for criminal acts. In the U.S., the use of the death penalty is still a debated issue. Do these forms of punishment really prevent crime? Beccaria faced this question, but concluded that torture or killing only destroys man’s spirit and his faith in the government. 


History provides many instances in which torture was used. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, used torture to suppress heresy within the Catholic church. Beccaria, however, disagrees with these harsh punishments. He writes of past tortures, “Can one read history without horror and disgust at the useless barbarity of the tortures so coldly invented and inflicted by men who were reckoned wise?” Rulers inflict pain on their enemies and destroy them, but the rulers destroy the basic humanity within themselves by carrying out torture. 


Though Beccaria feels that those who torture others are transformed into barbarians, the punished man is even less human than his antagonist. The aggressor, though cruel, is capable of the human emotion of anger. The afflicted, however, eventually becomes indifferent after repeated torture. Beccaria states, “as punishments become more cruel, men’s minds…become increasingly hardened; and human emotion has such a lively force that after a hundred years of cruel punishment of that kind the wheel would only seem as terrifying as the prison had been earlier on.” When the punishment is constantly brutal, the punished no longer reacts to it and his human emotions disappear.


One of the main justifications for harsh punishments is that others will fear those punishments and stop committing crimes. Although this might be effective for a while, just as the prisoner becomes immune to his punishment the public also ceases to remain in awe if penalties are repeatedly severe. Beccaria points out that if law constantly dictates harsh punishments, that law will not last long. He warns, “If the laws are indeed cruel, either they are altered or they occasion a fatal tendency not to punish.” Instead of preventing further crime, cruelty promotes indifference to all punishments. Since no one, not even Beccaria, advocates the absence of punishments, the punishments must fit the crimes committed. Harsh punishments such as life imprisonment should be rare and reserved for the worst crimes, ensuring that the people do not become indifferent towards punishment.  


Just as he opposes other forms of torture, Beccaria also opposes the death penalty. The job of the government is to provide the people with laws that protect them. Beccaria comments on the difference between the laws the people are given to follow and the laws the government leaders follow. Though the people cannot commit murder, the death penalty is permitted under the law. Beccaria points out that through the cruelty of the death penalty, leaders only inspire hate for the government. 


To Beccaria, brutality harmed each aspect of civilization. It harmed the officials by making them cruel, the afflicted by making them indifferent, and the government through the disgust of the public. The United States maintains Beccaria’s anti-brutality stance in its prisons, yet has the death penalty in many states. Contrary to our laws, some prisoners have been beaten or mistreated to get confessions from them. According to Beccaria, until the death penalty and beatings are eliminated, civilization will continue to suffer.





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