Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The primitive economy, that which is the foundation of all the rest, is rural. In early times it was exhibited in the patriarchal life and especially in that of Abraham, who made a long journey through the arid deserts of Memphis to buy corn. I shall continue, with due respect, to discard all that is divine in the history of Abraham, and attend to his rural economy alone.

I do not learn that he ever had a house; he quitted the most fertile country of the universe and towns in which there were commodious houses, to go wandering in countries, the languages of which he did not understand.

He went from Sodom into the desert of Gerar without forming the least establishment. When he turned away Hagar and the child Ishmael it was still in a desert and all the food he gave them was a morsel of bread and a cruse of water. When he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord it was again in a desert. He cut the wood himself to burn the victim and put it on the back of Isaac, whom he was going to immolate.

His wife died in a place called Kirgath-arba, or Hebron; he had not six feet of earth in which to bury her, but was obliged to buy a cave to deposit her body. This was the only piece of land which he ever possessed.

However, he had many children, for, without reckoning Isaac and his posterity, his second wife Keturah, at the age of one hundred and forty years, according to the ordinary calculation, bore him five male children, who departed towards Arabia.

It is not said that Isaac had a single piece of land in the country in which his father died; on the contrary, he went into the desert of Gerar with his wife, Rebecca, to the same Abimelech, king of Gerar, who had been in love with his mother.

The king of the desert became also amorous of Rebecca, whom her husband caused to pass for his sister, as Abraham had acted with regard to Sarah and this same King Abimelech forty years before. It is rather astonishing that in this family the wife always passed for the sister when there was anything thing to be gained, but as these facts are consecrated, it is for us to maintain a respectful silence.

Scripture says that Abraham enriched himself in this horrible country, which became fertile for his benefit, and that he became extremely powerful. But it is also mentioned that he had no water to drink; that he had a great quarrel with the king’s herdsmen for a well; and it is easy to discover that he still had not a house of his own.

His children, Esau and Jacob, had not a greater establishment than their father. Jacob was obliged to seek his fortune in Mesopotamia, whence Abraham came; he served seven years for one of the daughters of Laban, and seven other years to obtain the second daughter. He fled with his wives and the flocks of his father-in-law, who pursued him. A precarious fortune, that of Jacob.

Esau is represented as wandering like Jacob. None of the twelve patriarchs, the children of Jacob, had any fixed dwelling, or a field of which they were the proprietors. They reposed in their tents like Bedouin Arabs.

It is clear that this patriarchal life would not conveniently suit the temperature of our atmosphere. A good cultivator, such as Pignoux of Auvergne, must have a convenient house with an aspect towards the east, large barns and stables, stalls properly built, the whole amounting to about fifty thousand francs of our present money in value. He must sow a hundred acres with corn, besides having good pastures; he should possess some acres of vineyard, and about fifty for inferior grain and herbs, thirty acres of wood, a plantation of mulberries, silkworms, and bees. With all these advantages well economized, he can maintain a family in abundance. His land will daily improve; he will support them without fearing the irregularity of the seasons and the weight of taxes, because one good year repairs the damages of two bad ones. He will enjoy in his domain a real sovereignty, which will be subject only to the laws. It is the most natural state of man, the most tranquil, the most happy, and, unfortunately, the most rare.

The son of this venerable patriarch, seeing himself rich, is disgusted with paying the humiliating tax of the taille. Having unfortunately learned some Latin he repairs to town, buys a post which exempts him from the tax and which bestows nobility. He sells his domain to pay for his vanity, marries a girl brought up in luxury who dishonors and ruins him; he dies in beggary, and his only son wears a livery in Paris.

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