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Traité des délits et des peines

Authors of source text

Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria


André Morellet
Chez Molini Libraire (Giovanni Claudio Molini)

Related resources

is translation of
Dei delitti e delle pene has translation

Held by


This translation was also printed in America.

According to Morellet, he was asked by Malesherbes to translate Beccaria's treatise after finding the mot juste for the first line at a dinner party. He says it took him six weeks (Mémoires, p.163) The translation went through seven editions in six months, with later versions including Voltaire's commentary.

Morellet's translation caused some controversy at the time when he was accused of taking too much liberty with Beccaria’s text. Believing that his treatise had not fully exploited its polemic potential, he drastically reorganised its chapters, paragraphs and, arguably, its meaning, to the point of rendering the content virtually unrecognisable. The new structure was, in its editor’s words, intended to rationalize the “chaleur du sentiment” clouding Beccaria’s argument, and to clarify the vital substance of the text to its readers in order to make its content more useful.

Understandably, its author was unconvinced by the text’s new internal logic. Politely thanking Morellet for his efforts, Beccaria maintained the original format for Aubert’s fifth, revised Italian edition of 1766 and all further reprints. Morellet's reordering gives the treatise a misleadingly jurisprudential slant when compared to Beccaria’s original, “unnatural” arrangement of ideas. While Morellet may have identified how to emphasize Beccaria's more digestible theories on penal reform to encourage their immediate implementation, his rearrangement overlooked Beccaria’s broader, more radical argument of the need for social as well as legal change.

By a curious twist of fate, it was this new interpretation of the text that inexplicably became the standard Italian edition after a chance copy was translated back into Italian, and printed in Venice in 1774. Better known as the 'vulgata' edition, this translation has been preserved for centuries as the “classic”, Italian version, securing the authority of Morellet’s structure as the template for further re-translations into English and other languages. So pervasive was this vulgata edition that its authority remained unquestioned until the 1950s, when Franco Venturi confirmed that the fifth, or 'Harlem' edition, was the last unadulterated, revised (by the author) version of 'Dei delitti'. Venturi has shown how scholars had long overlooked how translators, publishers and historians, unaware that they were not working from the original text, had helped to transform the meaning of Beccaria’s ideas, repeatedly reinforcing an unrepresentative interpretation of the author’s original intentions.

A new translation by Étienne Chaillou de Lisy was published in 1773 (seven years after Morellet’s version) providing a far truer rendering of the text. It was this version that was included in Jean-Pierre Brissot's multi-volume legal anthology, 'Bibliothèque philosophique du législateur' (1782-88).

A later edition published in 1797, organized by the deputy and journalist Pierre-Louis Roederer, provided a letter exchange between Beccaria and Morellet, additional notes by Denis Diderot and a translation of Jeremy Bentham's 'Theory of Penal Law' by Camille Saint-Aubin, 'Traité des délits et des peines, par Beccaria; traduit de l'italien par André Morellet; nouvelle édition corrigée; précédée d'une correspondance de l'auteur avec le traducteur; accompagnée de notes de Diderot; et suivie d'une Théorie des lois pénales, par Jérémie Bentham; traduite de l'anglais par Saint-Aubin' (An V, de l'imprimerie du Journal d'économie publique de morale et de politique).

For more on the afterlife of Morellet's version, see Franco Venturi, ed., 'Dei delitti e delle pene' (1997, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore); and Alejandra Ortolja-Baird, 'Where Philosophy meets Bureaucracy: Cesare Beccaria's Social Contract from Page to Practice' (PhD, European University Institute, 2017).