In the city of Gotham there were two elderly men who were reputed to possess great wisdom. One of them, nicknamed Socrates, lived by the north gate; he had a bald head and a long white beard, and dressed in a black robe; he walked the streets with a stately tread, rarely speaking. Near the south gate lived a man nicknamed Sophocles; he too bore an appearance of great wisdom, and answered the difficult questions people brought to him. (When one man asked him, "Shall I win my lawsuit or not?," Sophocles replied, "If it is not decided against you, you will certainly win your suit.")
An old beggar woman of the town observed these two, and saw that both were frauds and fools. She decided to promote her lazy husband into a third wise man. She washed his beard until it was white, and dressed him appropriately; she changed his name from Perry Smith to Pericles, and soon the town acclaimed him as its third wise man.
The three characters met one day at the hut of Pericles, seated on stools among a great throng of people. Each was fearful of betraying his real ignorance, and spoke only reluctantly. Finally, Sophocles offered the judgement that the world is flat. Socrates claimed that it is dish-shaped, for otherwise the oceans would drain away. And Pericles said that the world is a hollow sphere, with people living on the inside surface.
Socrates suggested that they sail to the edge in a boat, to learn who is right; the others agreed. At the shore, all of the fishing boats were out fishing. The three wise men set out in the only craft available — a large old bowl. The tide carried them over the horizon; the bowl began to leak.
Too late, the three realized their danger; and each admitted he was a fool. Yet they also blamed the people of Gotham for inflating their reputations: "the people have murdered us!" Soon the bowl split apart. "And the people are still waiting for the three wise men to come back to them."
The story is one of the dozen in the collection that is furnished with a Maxfield Parrish illustration. It expands upon one of the now less well-known nursery rhymes, which succinctly reads:
- Three Wise Men of Gotham
- Went to sea in a bowl.
- If the bowl had been stronger
- My tale had been longer.
In the wise men's debate on the shape of the Earth, Baum touches upon the Hollow Earth theory that was a popular folly of the nineteenth century.