The Most Extraordinary Thing in the World

The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.

Attr. G. K. Chesterton

  1. A general web search for the most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man Chesterton turns up nothing with a source. More distressing, perhaps, is that there aren’t even very many unsourced versions of it. By the time I get to the second page of results, they’re not this quotation at all.
  2. Wikiquote doesn’t have it, even on the discussion page for GKC.
  3. It’s not on the Chesterton society web site.
  4. Google Books has most of Chesterton available, and this quotation is not in any of his works there. It is quoted in other books going back at least to the early 1990s, but never with a source that I can see.
  5. This site has a lot of GKC’s works online. Searching that site only turns up nothing.
  6. A friend consulted Sprug’s An Index to G. K. Chesterton, finding nothing.

Some say it’s in Heretics, but it isn’t.

Does it sound like GKC? The idea certainly sounds like him, and maybe even the phrasing, which makes me really hesitant to say that he didn’t say it. But I’d love to find a source.


June 27: Some of my friends who are more obsessed than I were able to tell that Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the books I found on Google Books that uses the quotation, has a footnote for the quotation on p. 212 referring to a Chesterton Omnibus. Unfortunately the whole note is not available as a preview on Google Books.  The only Chesterton Omnibus I have been able to find contains The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Flying Inn. The saying in question is not contained in any of those three works.

This leaves me more reluctant to say that he definitely didn’t say it, but I’d like to know for sure. No place nearby has it in the library, sad to say, and I’m not quite up to doing an interlibrary loan.

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Chesterton, the Church, right and wrong

Catholic Memes has a new one going around FB, attributed to G. K. Chesterton:

I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I already know I’m wrong; I need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.”

Two things about this struck me the moment I saw it: 1) Chesterton did say something like that; and 2) Chesterton would never have phrased himself so awkwardly. What he actually said was: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” The Catholic Church and Conversion

Chesterton’s explanation/elucidation of the point is worth reading:

It is a very different matter when a religion, in the real sense of a binding thing, binds men to their morality when it is not identical with their mood. It is very different when some of the saints preached social reconciliation to fierce and raging factions who could hardly bear the sight of each others’ faces. It was a very different thing when charity was preached to pagans who really did not believe in it; just as it is a very different thing now, when chastity is preached to new pagans who do not believe in it. It is in those cases that we get the real grapple of religion; and it is in those cases that we get the peculiar and solitary triumph of the Catholic faith. It is not in merely being right when we are right, as in being cheerful or hopeful or humane. It is in having been right when we were wrong, and in the fact coming back upon us afterwards like a boomerang. One word that tells us what we do not know outweighs a thousand words that tell us what we do know. And the thing is all the more striking if we not only did not know it but could not believe it. It may seem a paradox to say that the truth teaches us more by the words we reject than by the words we receive.