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Criminology: Intellectual History - The Renaissance

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The end of the Middle Ages in Europe brought the beginning of the modem search for natural explanations of the phenomenon called crime. This was the time of the Renaissance, an age of great humanists who were interested in human character and personality, society and politics. Especially prominent were the utopian writers, whose name derives from the Utopia of Thomas More (1478–1535), and the "social contract" writers, whose name derives from The Social Contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712– 1778).

Beginning with Thomas Hobbes (1588–1678), "social contact" writers substituted naturalistic arguments for the spiritual and religious arguments of people like Aquinas. Where Aquinas argued that people naturally do good rather than evil, Hobbes argued that people naturally pursue their own interests without caring whether they hurt anyone else. This leads to a "war of each against all." But people are rational enough to realize that this "war" is not in anyone's interests, so they agree to give up their own selfish behavior as long as everyone else does the same thing. This is the "social contract"—something like a peace treaty when everyone is exhausted from the war of each against all. But the social contract needs an enforcement mechanism to prevent people from cheating. According to Hobbes, that is the role of the state: Everyone who agrees to the social contract also agrees to grant the state the right to use force to maintain the contract.

Later social contract writers protested the criminal laws and punishments of the day and suggested ways to reform them. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu (1689–1755) insisted that prevention of crime was better than punishment of the criminal, and that punishment merely for its own sake was evil. Voltaire (1694–1778) became the leader of a movement against the arbitrariness of the French criminal justice system and the prevailing barbaric treatment of prisoners. He advocated rehabilitation and suggested employing prison inmates in dangerous public works as an alternative to enforced idleness. Rousseau was convinced that the institution of property, with the resulting poverty among some groups, caused most criminality. He strongly opposed the existing criminal justice system, which assumed that crime reflected the influence of the devil, declaring instead that humans are basically good and that only untenable social conditions transform them into criminals.

Utopian writers took a position similar to Rousseau's—that humans are basically good and that this basic goodness would emerge under the proper social conditions. Thus, their books criticized existing social institutions and described imaginary societies in which this basic human goodness was revealed. The most important such book was Thomas More's Utopia. More used sarcasm and satire to criticize social institutions in England. In particular he criticized the current economic conditions in England, discussed their relationship with criminality, and decried the extreme harshness of English justice under Henry VIII. More's book then went on to describe an imaginary land (Utopia) where humans were uncorrupted; where reason, love, and law worked in harmony to make a perfect society, pervaded by a sense of brotherhood among all educated people; where everyone worked and no one was idle; and where justice was designed to eliminate vice rather than to destroy the criminal.

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