11/18/2014 01:23 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

What Isaiah Berlin Taught Me

My girlfriend didn't want to go. I had received an invitation for a lecture on "Oxford in the '30s" to be given by Sir Isaiah Berlin in the spring of 1974 at Balliol College's Holywell Manor.

Sir Isaiah was then the founder and President of Wolfson College and had agreed to reminisce about his experiences at Oxford in the heyday of the 1930s when A.J. Ayer, P.F. Strawson, and a host of other extraordinary philosophers and historians were achieving international renown. At the time, I was reading philosophy, politics, and economics at Balliol. My girlfriend was reading English literature at St Anne's College. We had both been undergraduates together at Princeton and came up to Oxford in 1973.

I was puzzled by her response. "Why don't you want to go and hear Sir Isaiah?" She said, "Get your copy of his book off the shelf, and I'll show you." So I found my well-thumbed paperback copy of Four Essays on Liberty and handed it to her. She pointed to the cover and said, "There's the problem." I said, "What are you talking about?"

"Don't you see? His name on the cover is twice the height of the book's title. He has to be arrogant and pompous."

"Come on, that's nonsense. I've read this book, and Two Concepts of Liberty is one of the most important essays on political theory of the 20th Century. I'm going to go; you can do what you like." We both went, along with two other Princeton friends.

The four of us were standing around during the cocktail hour at Holywell Manor when Sir Isaiah came in, walked up to our group, and introduced himself. "Hello, I'm Isaiah Berlin," -- as if we didn't know who the guest of honor was.

Sir Isaiah then spent the entire cocktail party chatting with the four of us. Meanwhile, buzzing around our group were faculty members, graduate students, and other guests who clearly wanted to catch his eye and meet him. But if he wasn't moving, neither were we.

How often have you been in the presence of famous people (and some not so famous people) who constantly look around when they're talking with you to see who else is in the room? Sir Isaiah had none of that. He wouldn't stop talking, and we couldn't stop listening, even though I began to feel that perhaps we were monopolizing his time and wearing out our welcome.

A bell rang, calling us to dinner, and I thought that surely he'd leave us for the head table. That didn't happen. The five of us migrated into the dining room and sat together. I was increasingly incredulous at this extreme good fortune.

The conversation continued. I asked him about E.M. Forster, my favorite novelist. He had known Forster personally, as he had known nearly every member of the Bloomsbury Group.

My girlfriend asked, "Sir Isaiah, who is the most beautiful woman you ever met?" I cringed, but 40 years later I recognize the brilliance of the question. Sir Isaiah paused for just a second and said, "Virginia Woolf." He was close to her and Leonard, her husband. We talked about Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Doctor Zhivago. It was an evening to last a lifetime.

Afterwards, everyone moved into the common room which was filled with wide chairs and well-worn, overstuffed couches. Sir Isaiah presided from a large chair facing the audience. I sat in the front row almost in front of Sir Isaiah, and just a few seats to my right was another of my intellectual heroes: H.L.A. Hart, then the Principal of Brasenose College. Hart had written perhaps the best book on jurisprudence of the 20th Century. The Concept of Law is to jurisprudence what Hamlet is to drama: not an unnecessary or a misplaced word.

Sir Isaiah began his talk -- no notes, of course -- that ranged through a remarkable set of experiences and friendships. Then he got into a back-and-forth with Herbert Hart. "Well, Herbert, you'll remember when Freddie Ayer published Language, Truth and Logic and gave his lectures on..." "Yes, Isaiah, I do. And you'll recall that..." They were two old friends who had searched for and found their own lost time.

It went like this in a Wimbledon of words before an audience transfixed by these two great minds. No one in the room wanted the evening to end. Yet it was Oxford, and there was the usual after-dinner port. Sir Isaiah did, finally, mingle with others, but before the evening ended I wanted to thank him for his generosity and also make a request. It was the request that I thought might be over the top, typically American, and possibly unwelcome.

So I went up to him and said, "Sir Isaiah, I very much enjoyed our discussion earlier this evening, but, you know, we didn't quite finish everything, and I wanted to know if you might be willing to come over to my room at Balliol some afternoon for tea."

There it was. I had done it. Yet another gauche American undergraduate ignoring centuries-old Oxford decorum. I waited to be dismissed. Sir Isaiah looked at me -- he was a relatively short, stout man--drew back, slightly raised his shoulders and eyebrows, and said, "Well. You know, since I've reached my vast, exalted status as President of the British Academy, people don't ask me to do things like that anymore. But I'd love to."

About three weeks later, Sir Isaiah Berlin came over to Balliol, walked up three flights of stairs, brought his own infusion, and sat on my bed for several hours. I invited two friends for the occasion (my girlfriend had no second thoughts about this invitation), and we had a discussion that ranged from philosophy and theories of punishment to topics which I can no longer recall. To this day, my regret is that I didn't ask his permission to record our discussion, but I also realized that doing so might impede the spontaneity that was, in fact, present that afternoon. And there is something special about preserving this "spot of time" in the recesses of one's own memory.

Looking back on that remarkable experience as an Oxford undergraduate, I have learned that Sir Isaiah Berlin inadvertently taught me a very important lesson. He was a man who is widely regarded as one of the greatest intellects of the 20th Century, and yet he took the time to be with American undergraduates who, of course, could do nothing for him but whose lives were immensely enriched by this proximity to greatness.

Isaiah Berlin remains the most impressive and brilliant person whom I have met. If there is anyone who was ever entitled to be arrogant because of his accomplishments, it would be Isaiah Berlin. That he wasn't arrogant is a lesson to be shared with others.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation --United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.