Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


When a man puts away his mistress — his friend — the partner of his bed, he must either make her condition tolerably comfortable or be regarded among us as a man of bad heart.

We are told that Abraham was very rich in the desert of Gerar, although he did not possess an inch of land. However, we know with the greatest certainty that he defeated the armies of four great kings with three hundred and eighteen shepherds.

He should, then, at least have given a small flock to his mistress Agar, when he sent her away in the desert. I speak always according to worldly notions, always reverencing those incomprehensible ways which are not our ways.

I would have given my old companion Agar a few sheep, a few goats, a few suits of clothes for herself and our son Ishmael, a good she-ass for the mother and a pretty foal for the child, a camel to carry their baggage, and at least two men to attend them and prevent them from being devoured by wolves.

But when the Father of the Faithful exposed his poor mistress and her child in the desert he gave them only a loaf and a pitcher of water. Some impious persons have asserted that Abraham was not a very tender father — that he wished to make his bastard son die of hunger, and to cut his legitimate son’s throat! But again let it be remembered that these ways were not our ways.

It is said that poor Agar went away into the desert of Beer-sheba. There was no desert of Beer-sheba; this name was not known until long after; but this is a mere trifle; the foundation of the story is not the less authentic. It is true that the posterity of Agar’s son Ishmael took ample revenge on the posterity of Sarah’s son Isaac, in favor of whom he had been cast out. The Saracens, descending in a right line from Ishmael, made themselves masters of Jerusalem, which belonged by right of conquest to the posterity of Isaac. I would have made the Saracens descend from Sarah; the etymology would then have been neater.

It has been asserted that the word Saracen comes from sarac, a robber. I do not believe any people have ever called themselves robbers; nearly all have been robbers, but it is not usual for them to take the title. Saracen descending from Sarah, appears to me to sound better.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01