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The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila:
A Biography

by carlos eire
princeton, 280 pages, $26.95

It is no easy task to write the biography of an autobiography, but Carlos Eire has done it. His book describes the composition and legacy of St. Teresa of Avila’s Vida, which popularized the introspective prayer and contemplative Carmelite devotion that has inspired so many—including St. John of the Cross.

Eire focuses less on Teresa’s descriptions of her spiritual experiences than on how the Vida influenced European Christianity. Teresa’s account of her visions and transverberation became an essential part of the mystical Catholic tradition. But Teresa’s mysticism was not entirely welcome in her day. The Spanish Inquisition regarded Teresa and the Vida with suspicion. Domingo Báñez, Teresa’s confessor, even attempted to suppress its circulation.

Eire leaves no Teresian controversy unexamined—from the saint’s struggle to be understood during her own life to the ways in which psychoanalytic and feminist theory in the twentieth century have falsely appropriated the Vida. Eire’s volume serves as a fine introduction, and will drive readers to pick up the autobiography for themselves. 

—Mary Spencer

The Debasement of Human Rights:
How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom

by aaron rhodes
encounter, 368 pages, $27.99

Something is badly out of kilter in the contemporary debate about human rights. The philosophical understanding of civil and political “rights”—for example, freedom of religion and freedom of speech—has been transformed into a conception of social and economic rights, such as the right to health care, education, affordable housing, a living wage, a clean environment, and so on.

Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights from 1993 to 2007, mounts a vigorous critique of this proliferation of human rights. He shows that the historic understanding of rights rested on a foundation of natural law, whereas the current rhetoric of rights is an appeal to positive law, or to what legislatures and courts determine the goals of society should be. The former, by appealing to the freedom of the human person, sought to constrain the arbitrary exercise of political authority. The latter seeks to promote positive rights created and granted by the state: in Rhodes’s mordant words, what “respected leaders and intellectuals from around the world” consider rights to be. His book is a bracing and timely rebuttal of the ignorance and fatuousness of much that is written (and spoken) about human rights today.

—Robert Louis Wilken

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