Heroes and Villains

Douglas MacArthur and Hubris

Students will explore the vice of hubris or pride in a constitutional republic in this lesson on civic virtue.  Students will examine the life of the heroic, but flawed, career of General Douglas MacArthur in World War II and the Korean War.  Through a historical narrative, discussion guide, primary sources, and other activities, students will analyze whether MacArthur exhibited the vice of hubris and what effect it might have had on civil-military relations in a constitutional republic.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTION: Can a hero sometimes fall because of a character flaw related to pride?


  • Write the word “hubris” on the board. Discuss, as a class, what it might mean. Allow the students to look up the definition if they are unfamiliar with the word. Then, post the following definition:

    To show excessive pride or vanity, arrogance, or conceit that usually brings about a downfall.

  • Explain that the ancient Greeks are generally credited with creating our understanding of hubris and the fall of the tragic hero from greatness in their epic poetry and drama. However, the literature of many different civilizations and the texts of many different religions also warn against the dangers of pride. Ask students for real and fictional examples of hubris and write them next to the definition.

About Launch Activities

This optional introductory activity is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Lesson Background

General Douglas MacArthur always stirred up controversy because of conflicting virtues and vices in his character. He loved serving his country in the military and usually did so brilliantly and courageously….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

Borneman, Walter. MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific. New York: Little, Brown, 2016.

Brands, H.W. The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Dallek, Robert. Harry S. Truman. New York: Times Books, 2008.

Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Herman, Arthur. Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior. New York: Random House, 2016.

Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964. New York: Back Bay, 2008.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Perrett, Geoffrey. Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life and Legend of Douglas MacArthur. New York: Random House, 1996.

Perry, Mark. The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Iron Man 2 (2010), directed by Jon Favreau
In Iron Man 2, Iron Man Tony Stark makes a grand entrance to a wildly cheering crowd at the industrial Stark Expo. When he addresses the crowd, Stark is rightfully proud of his contributions to ending threats to world peace. But, he arrogantly claims complete credit, and the hero sets himself up for a tragic fall.

“It’s good to be back. Did you miss me? Blow something up? I already did that. I’m not saying that the world is enjoying its longer period of uninterrupted peace in years because of me. I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a Phoenix metaphor been more personified! I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across anyone man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day! It’s not about me. It’s not about you, either. It’s about legacy, the legacy left behind for future generations. It’s not about us!”

The Iliad by Homer
This classic epic poem of war is set in the Trojan War. Achilles is the greatest hero of the Greeks but he refuses to fight because of a dispute with King Agamemnon. Achilles lets his pride and vanity stand in the way of winning the war until drawn into the fight by the death of his cousin, Patroclus.

Paradise Lost by John Milton
In this poem, John Milton depicts Lucifer as an angel who wants the other angels to worship him as a god. When God casts Lucifer into hell, the fallen angel arrogantly proclaims, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare
Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.