Before preceding to discuss Beccaria it may be important to discuss the state of criminal justice in Europe to which the classical school was responding. Europe was leaving behind its long history of feudalism and absolute monarchy and turning toward the development of modern nation states that ruled based an rational decision-making powers. However, criminal justice was one of the areas that needed to be updated. Throughout Europe [except in England] the use of torture to secure confessions and force self-incriminating testimony had been widespread. Michel Foucault's description of the execution of Damiens for attempted regicide shows just how brutal traditional justice could be in France. In England, the standard penalty for conviction of a felony was death. In addition, capital punishment had been combined with estate forfeiture, leaving the felon's widow and children penniless. The "corruption of blood" made it legally impossible for the convict's parents to pass own their wealth to their own grandchildren. Many accused Englishmen allowed themselves to be crushed to death (piene forte et dure) rather than risk a trial and leave their families destitute.
It was with knowledge of such history that Beccaria developed his ideas concerning criminal behavior and how best to control it. However, Beccaria and other utilitarians did not develop their ideas in a vacuum. There were other Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau who helped to create the intellectual climate in which Beccaria worked. There were a number of beliefs about human behavior that most "reasoned" intellectuals shared. These included:
bullet (I.) The belief that pain and suffering were a natural part of the human condition.
bullet (2.) Humankind is a rational species.
bullet (3.) What controls behavior is the human will.
bullet (4.) Although supernatural [and natural] forces might influence the will, in regard to specific actions the will was free to choose.